How to provide opportunities for extended discussion of text meaning and interpretation

From Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices

To engage students in high-quality discussions of text meaning and interpretation, teachers can:

1. Carefully prepare for the discussion.
In classes where a choice of reading selections is possible, look for selections that are engaging for students and describe situations or content that can stimulate and have multiple interpretations. In content-area classes that depend on a textbook, teachers can identify in advance the issues or content that might be difficult or misunderstood or sections that might be ambiguous or subject to multiple interpretations. Alternatively, brief selections from the Internet or other sources that contain similar content but positions that allow for critical analysis or controversy can also be used as a stimulus for extended discussions.

Another form of preparation involves selecting and developing questions that can stimulate students to think reflectively about the text and make high-level connections or inferences. These are questions that an intelligent reader might actually wonder about—they are not the kind of questions that teachers often ask to determine what students have learned from the text. Further, the types of discussion questions appropriate for history texts would probably be different from those for science texts, as would those for social studies texts or novels. Because part of the goal of discussion-based approaches is to model for students the ways that good readers construct meaning from texts, it seems reasonable to suggest that discussions of history texts might be framed differently from those of science texts.

2. Ask follow-up questions that help provide continuity and extend the discussion.
Questions that are used to frame discussions are typically followed by other questions about a different interpretation, an explanation of reasoning, or an identification of the content from the text that supports the student’s position. In a sustained discussion initial questions are likely to be followed by other questions that respond to the student’s answer and lead to further thinking and elaboration.
If the reading comprehension standards that students are expected to meet involve making inferences or connections across different parts of a text or using background knowledge and experience to evaluate conclusions, students should routinely have the opportunity to discuss answers to these types of questions in all their reading and content-area classes.

3. Provide a task, or a discussion format, that students can follow when they discuss texts together in small groups.
For example, assign students to read selections together and practice using the comprehension strategies that have been taught and demonstrated. In these groups students can take turns playing various roles, such as leading the discussion, predicting what the section might be about, identifying words that are confusing, and summarizing. As these roles are completed, other students can then respond with other predictions, other things that are confusing, or different ways of summarizing the main idea. While students are working together, the teacher should actively circulate among the groups to redirect discussions that have gone astray, model thinking strategies, or ask students additional questions to probe the meaning of the text at deeper levels.

4. Develop and practice the use of a specific “discussion protocol.”
Because it is challenging to lead the type of discussion that has an impact on students’ reading comprehension, it may be helpful for teachers to identify a specific set of steps from the research or best practice literature.60 This could be done either individually or collaboratively in gradelevel or subject-area teams. An example of a discussion protocol is provided in one of the research studies used to support this recommendation.61 In this study teachers were trained to follow five guidelines: ask questions that require students to explain their positions and the reasoning behind them, model reasoning processes by thinking out loud, propose counter arguments or positions, recognize good reasoning when it occurs, and summarize the flow and main ideas of a discussion as it draws to a close. To be effective these types of discussions do not need to reach consensus; they just need to give students the opportunity to think more deeply about the meaning of what they are reading.

56. Bird (1984); Heinl (1988); Reznitskaya et al. (2001); Yeazell (1982).
57. Applebee et al. (2003); Bird (1984); Heinl (1988); Reznitskaya et al. (2001); Yeazell (1982).
58. Bird (1984); Heinl (1988); Reznitskaya et al. (2001); Yeazell (1982).
59. Langer (2001, p. 872).

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
See the original document for complete references on the research annotations.