Academic journal article Reading Horizons (Online)

Learning to Facilitate Highly Interactive Literary Discussions to Engage Students as Thinkers

Academic journal article Reading Horizons (Online)

Learning to Facilitate Highly Interactive Literary Discussions to Engage Students as Thinkers

Article excerpt

Scholars advocate teaching instructional practices systematically as a central focus of teacher preparation (Ball & Forzani, 2009; Grossman, Compton, Igra, Ronfeldt, Shahan et al., 2009). For example, learning to facilitate interactive whole-class discussions is widely recognized as an important "high-leverage practice" that is central to becoming an effective teacher due to its strong potential to increase pupils' opportunities for meaningful learning (Ball & Forzani, 2009; Grossman, Hammerness & McDonald, 2009; Shanahan, Callison, Carrier, Duke, Pearson et al., 2010). There is ample evidence that highly interactive classroom discussions focused on the meaning of texts result in literacy achievement gains and improved communication skills (Langer, 1995; Lawrence & Snow, 2011; Murphy, Soter, Wilkinson, Hennessey & Alexander, 2009; Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991). Langer (1990) argues further that, "...beginning a discussion with an open-ended question that taps students' understandings (not the teacher's) is a powerful way to invite students to be thinkers" (p. 816). Developing one's practice to achieve these purposes is a complex undertaking that requires a high degree of teacher knowledge and skill.

Because developing proficiency may take years, it is important to articulate which elements of leading discussions preservice teachers should focus on and what types of supports they need to promote their initial learning (Grossman et al., 2009; Kucan & Palincsar, 2011; Rosaen, 2015). Preservice teachers also need to develop the capacity for continual and systematic analysis of their classroom teaching in order to learn from and revise their practice based on evidence (Hiebert, Morris, Berk & Jansen, 2007; Schon, 1990).

This exploratory descriptive study took place in a senior-level elementary literacy methods course. We designed a semester-long classroom-based assignment, The Language Arts Lesson and Reflection Project, to support preservice teachers in taking initial steps in working toward developing the practice of leading an interactive literary discussion. Such discussions are characterized by teachers and students constructing meaning collaboratively through exchanges that center around asking authentic questions, engaging participants in analysis and critical thinking, and building on student ideas (Almasi, 1996; Cazden, 2001; Kucan & Palincsar, 2013; Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991). We also focused on two related high-leverage practices necessary for leading discussions and learning from them: establishing norms and routines for classroom discussions, and analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it (high-leverage practices). We analyzed 83 preservice teachers' written work to investigate what they learned from their initial experience in planning, teaching, and analyzing a whole-class discussion. This study contributes to understanding the learning made possible during the beginning stages of developing the complex practice of leading discussions. We propose a learning trajectory outlining three areas of development (lesson design, knowledge and beliefs, and professional learning) that may offer direction for helping preservice teachers improve in specific areas and provide a focus for future research.

Theoretical Perspective and Literature Review

Fostering Highly Interactive Discussions in Language Arts

From a sociocultural perspective (Vygotsky, 1978), engaging in interactive discussions deepens conceptual understanding (Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003); improves student achievement (Murphy et al., 2009; Nystrand & Gamoran, 1991); and promotes higher-level thinking, reasoning, and communication skills (Langer, 1995; Lawrence & Snow, 2011). These interactions promote what Nystrand and Gamoran (1991) referred to as substantive student engagement, which is a cognitive process that includes "the attention, interest, investment, and effort students expend in the work of learning" (Marks, 2000). …

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