Five Ways to Encourage Participation in Class Discussion

My twelfth grade class is full of lovely young people.  I'm quite enjoying every one of them.  However, when it comes time for class discussion, most of them clam up, look at their desks, and silently hope that John will answer my questions. John usually complies, eager to expound on his thoughts. Sometimes, Sophie hops in, followed by Kendra for a final push.  These three lovely students have a lot to offer, but it can't be the John/Sophie/Kendra show every day.

Five ways to encourage participation in class discussion

The problem is that class discussion is my fave.  I love to hear what they all think.  I love to guide them into a great debate.  Over the last few years, though, I'm finding that harder to do.  There have always been kids who don't want to speak out in class; I know that.  It's just that there seems to be more and more of them.  I like to blame it on their obsession with their phones, on the fact that they'd rather text than talk.  Regardless of the cause, though, I feel it's one of my jobs as an English teacher to get them thinking and communicating with each other.

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The first month of school hasn't been an energy-filled one for me - a cold caught me and it was a nasty, tenacious one that sucked all of my energy.  So I didn't fight my usual fight to get my students yacking it up in class.  Now that my energy is sort of back, I'm ready to dig into my usual prodding tools. Here's five of my favourite strategies:

When you pose a question, whether it's a text-based one or one based on opinion, ask students to do a quick-write that requires them to reflect on the answer. This doesn't have to be long -- just a minute or two. Then ask each student to turn to a neighbour and discuss the answer.  After each student has had time to speak, have the class discussion.  This way, each student needs to think and speak, even if they aren't interested in addressing the whole class. This avoids the scenario where a handful of students are engaged while the others tune out.

When I sit back and wait for volunteers to answer my questions, I get the usual hands in the air.  However, if you use some "no hands techniques" you can avoid the situation where a few students dominate the discussion.  Because they don't know who you are going to call on, everyone needs to prepare to answer. There will be those, of course, who try the "I dunno" response, but you should resist the urge to move on to a more willing participant. Ask them some easier questions to nudge them along. For example, if you ask them about a character's motivations in a novel and you get a shrug, ask say like this: "Well, let's think about it. Remember when he...?What did that tell us? So now that he...."  Use leading questions that will help the student figure it out and in a way that sounds like you're discussing the topic, working it out together, rather than putting him/her on the spot. This can show them some thinking strategies as well as let them know that you're not going to let them off the hook so easily!

It can take a few classes to break them of the deeply ingrained hands-up habit, so you need to be patient. It's also hard to break it yourself because we're so trained to pose a question and then respond to the hands. I wrote a post about how I manage it HERE

Yes, they'd rather text than talk.  Because of this, I've found ways to use technology, especially at the beginning of the semester, to help them feel comfortable with each other.   Here's an excerpt from a post I wrote, at the beginning of second semester last year, called Technology Love: Because the students are just getting to know each other, I start with blogging, as they are generally less shy when armoured with a computer screen. I divide the students into groups and assign articles to read and videos to watch. The first theme is failure. After reading and viewing, students will post a response on their group's blog. Later, they will have to find a point made by classmate that they agree with --and extend it with a different idea or example.  They will also have to find an idea they would like to refute, again with evidence.

The hope is that by encouraging them to extend each others ideas-or to refute them- online, they will learn some "discussion" skills and will be more likely to engage with each other during face-to-face discussions in class.

Students are more likely to speak up in a small group. It's lower risk if they are shy, and because there are fewer people, there is more pressure to contribute and do their parts.  Early in the semester, when we are starting to use these small groups, I always choose a few keen volunteers to help me model what a good discussion looks like. I also give my students these book marks to help guide their chats. Then, when they have their first discussions, I circulate and prod them a bit when necessary. I try to draw them out if they aren't giving full answers, or ask if anyone disagrees with a point. They usually need some guidance in the early stages, and with practice, they get to the point where they don't need me anymore. 

When we come back together as a class, I ask for a rep from the group to report (and I make sure I don't always ask the same person to do this). When students report a group response, they feel less vulnerable, because they are explaining everyone's ideas, not just their own.

There's no rule that says we have to plan and lead all discussions. In fact, it's good practice to let the students do that.  If you have several aspects of a text you want to discuss in class, divide them up and assign one topic per group of students. Let them discuss it for a while, give them chart paper to record their conclusions, and then have each present their ideas to the whole class.  Socratic seminars are another way you can put the responsibility in the hands of the students. Give each group a topic they need to flesh out, using the Socratic method.

So what am I doing to get my students engaged? The no-hands policy is starting today. We're also starting a new project that will be done mostly in small groups.  And, I'm going to start using the task cards from my Task Cards for Talking About Books product.  I plan to give each group a number of cards on the same topic and let them discuss using examples from their independent novels.  We'll practice this a few times in small groups, and then each one will have to lead a Socratic Debate.

John, Sophie and Kendra: I love ya, but your days of being alone on the stage are over!

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