Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Social Skills and Leadership Abilities among Children in Small-Group Literature Discussions

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Social Skills and Leadership Abilities among Children in Small-Group Literature Discussions

Article excerpt

Many childhood educators are attempting to shift from the dominant "recitation" format of discussions found in today's classrooms. This study draws on reader response, and sociocognitive and sociocultural theories to investigate children's perceptions of social skills and leadership moves after participating in small-group discussions of literature for the first time. The researcher interviewed a stratified random sample of 24 elementary-age students after participating in such discussion groups for 4 months. Findings included that children perceived incidents of peers who helped, took turns, got along, and kept the discussion going. Results suggest that participation in small-group, peer-led literature discussions, with the support of teacher scaffolding, may support children's social and leadership skills.

Keywords: literature discussion, social skills, elementary school

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Many educators are attempting to shift from the dominant "recitation" format of discussions found in today's classrooms (Almasi, 1995). Such recitations are manifested as an I-R-E discourse structure--an all-too-familiar sequence whereby the teacher "initiates" a question, students "respond" to the question, and then the teacher "evaluates" the response (Cazden, 1988). The goal is to replace this pattern of recitation (often focused on discrete facts and skills) with a pattern of collaborative meaning-making through a model that promotes analysis, reflection, and critical thinking. Small-group literature discussions should be part of a balanced approach to reading instruction in elementary schools, even in classrooms with the very youngest readers and writers (McGee & Richgels, 2004; Pressley, 2006).

Researchers have termed literature discussions as "instructional conversation" (Goldenberg, 1993), "dialogic inquiry" (Wells, 1999), or "dialoguing to learn" (Barnes, 1993). Multiple classroom strategies exist for implementing text-based discussion in the elementary classroom (e.g., Gambrell & Almasi, 1996). Some examples of specific pedagogical models of text-based discussion have included book club (e.g., Raphael, Pardo, & Highfield, 2002), literature circles (Daniels, 1994, 2002, 2006), or grand conversations (Eeds & Wells, 1989) (for a comprehensive list and description of numerous text-based discussion approaches, see Martin, 2010). As with most pedagogical models, there are similarities and differences between small-group literature discussion approaches. For example, book club and literature circles are intended to be peer-led discussions, and both approaches often have students write before, during, and/or after reading to fuel discussion (in a journal or reading log, for example). In both approaches, the teacher or the students might select the books (if it is the students, they might select from a set of books). In book club, typically, one or more books are situated within a larger, integrated unit of study. The defining feature of literature circles is the recommended initial use of teacher-assigned discussion "roles" or "jobs" (such as "vocabulary finder," "discussion director," and "travel tracer") as scaffolds for turn-taking and for stimulating discussion. Studies have demonstrated that some students often (and should) abandon these assigned roles, or talk outside of the assigned roles, once they have internalized the discourse of talking about text (e.g., Latendresse, 2004; Long & Gove, 2003; Wilfong, 2009).

As Almasi, O'Flahavan, and Arya (2001) pointed out, however, the ultimate implementation of a model can unintentionally be more cooperative, rather than collaborative. For example, the use of assigned roles to each group member (a collaborative model) prompts individuals of a small group to contribute a response. Some students and teachers would be adrift at sea without such scaffolds. However, the risk of using these assigned roles is that teachers may become comfortable with their use and not drop them once students have internalized the workings of a good discussion. …

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