Communication Skills

Socratic Seminars in World Language Classes

Six tips for using the powerful discussion model with students who are still acquiring the target language.

January 10, 2018
High school students sitting in a circle and taking part in a group discussion.
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The Socratic seminar is often discussed in the context of English language arts classes. Among its benefits, practitioners mention drawing on the value of open conversations to foster deep thinking and analysis, developing a group culture for learning, and enhancing communication skills. 

All of these benefits are equally valuable in the world language classroom, and Socratic seminars deserve more attention in this context. I’ve been working to bring Socratic seminars to Spanish classes, and these are my classroom-tested suggestions to incorporate them in a way that allows students to become more robust, independent, and critical thinkers.

Six Tips for Using Socratic Seminars in World Language Classrooms

1. Start with a loose structure: A quick search into Socratic seminars yields a great number of possible structures. Some of them are quite intricate and may be unrealistic for your classes at the outset.

In your first Socratic seminars, a loose structure without assigned roles is probably the best way to ensure participation. Requiring students to make one meaningful comment, and to offer one follow-up question or reference to the work discussed, for instance, can be a reasonable expectation. Only as both your students’ familiarity with the format and their language proficiency develop should you consider more sophisticated arrangements.

2. Cinema may be a better starting point than literature: The types of canonical literary works that are the focus of Socratic seminars in an English classroom are probably too complex for a high school world language classroom. Using works by Cervantes or Baudelaire would require a significant amount of class time and effort that few teachers can afford.

Films, on the other hand, are less reliant on linguistic knowledge to capture students’ interest. And a carefully curated movie can be open to multiple levels of analysis and provide abundant culturally rich material for the essential questions that fuel Socratic seminars.

3. Allow time to plan: In many oral activities, difficulties may stem from lack of background knowledge rather than linguistic knowledge. Often students struggle to speak with eloquence for longer than 20 seconds because they haven’t formed opinions on a specific topic.

Since we want students to address complex issues, we need to be aware that deep levels of insight are only accessible after a process of exposure and reflection. Use a Socratic seminar as a culminating activity and be very conscious about all the steps leading to it.

Make frequent checks for understanding, and while you’re doing that, introduce the vocabulary students will need later. Revisit key scenes, expose students to reviews, and research background information on the topics explored in the film or book. Throughout this process, students will be able to access different dimensions of the work you’re studying, draw cultural connections, and develop their own thoughts.

Give students the Socratic seminar questions ahead of time so they may form their opinions and plan their contributions to the seminar. Remind them, however, that they’re expected to react to the views others express—they’ll have to do more than recite their prepared comments.

At this stage, it may be a good idea to help students with the vocabulary or structures that can help convey their thoughts articulately. It is important, though, not to be too intrusive. Allow learners to develop the complexity of their discourse in response to their real expressive needs.

4. Don’t be more than an observer: This is an important point, and a harder one to abide by than it may seem. Conversation beginnings may be bumpy—with simple, obvious, or redundant contributions. When you’re starting out, it’s important to resist the urge to intervene. If we want students to develop as independent thinkers, we need to provide the conditions in which they feel free to speak, without worrying about producing a “correct” answer. Allowing complexity to grow organically will prove more powerful in the end.

5. Keep the focus on students’ thoughts: Allow students to focus on developing complex thoughts. Requesting that they use many specific language structures or advanced vocabulary is likely to be counterproductive to higher level thinking: When students devote part of their cognitive ability to looking for chances to sneak in a subjunctive structure, their ability to listen and react to the ideas brought forth will be limited, which detracts from the spontaneity and meaningfulness of the exchange.

6. Be deliberate about your feedback: Make comments only about the content of the conversation. Praise the thoughts that were original, complex, or pertinent. Mention how a thesis could be enriched or defended more solidly. Perhaps ask for clarification on specific points.

Limit comments on vocabulary and grammar, as they are certainly secondary in this activity. If you want to bring students’ attention to linguistic accuracy, do so through the prism of communication. Questions such as “What did you mean by…?” or “Would it be clearer if you said…?” help convey the idea that inaccuracies are a natural and unavoidable component of language acquisition.