Academic journal article Ohio Reading Teacher

A Tale of Three Students: Diverse Approaches to Peer-Led Discussion of Literature

Academic journal article Ohio Reading Teacher

A Tale of Three Students: Diverse Approaches to Peer-Led Discussion of Literature

Article excerpt

Sally, an outgoing fifth grader, was observed leaning into the table nodding and listening, adding her comments and raising questions. She consistently conferred with the peers in her literature club as she used talk to construct meaning from the novel they were reading. Tony, who described himself as "talking too much, " often held the floor of the discussion for long periods of time, fully elaborating on ideas because, as he stated, " I'm trying to get out what I'm trying to say and what's on my mind, " His engagement showed as he nodded with agreement or folded his arms in disagreement, leaning back in his chair. Kim, who said she was new to the literature club and "always quiet, " maintained steady eye contact with her peers, listened intently, and held a copy of her novel that was filled with comments on sticky notes. While she often sat back in her chair, she visually connected with speakers and would lean forward if her vision were impeded. She was especially concerned that all of her peers participate in the discussion.

These three students had very individual approaches to participating in peer-led discussion of literature. As members of their discussion groups, they had effective yet individual purposes and styles of both preparing for and participating in Literature Club. This article presents findings from research in one urban fifth grade classroom that took a close look at students' participation in Literature Club and peer-led discussion of literature. Importantly, implications for the classroom teacher's use of peer-led discussion of literature are presented.

As a component of their literacy programs, many teachers are using discussion to construct meaning of text read (Raphael & McMahon, 1994). Increasingly this discussion is peer-led, with the students at the center of this interactive process and the teacher as a facilitator (Almasi, 1996). The Ohio Academic Standards for English Language Arts (2001) recognize the importance of oral communication and the need for practicing both speaking and listening. The fifth grade level indicators of the Communication standard include the ability to "demonstrate active listening strategies" and to "adjust speaking content according to the needs of the situation, setting and audience." As described in the Reading Applications: Literary Text standard, students are encouraged to demonstrate comprehension of text in many ways through discussion. Participation in literature club discussions offers students opportunities to develop these abilities. Educators need to understand how and why students interact to more effectively implement this approach to literacy development. This study took an in-depth look at the nature of fifth grade students' participation in peer-led discussion of literature.


Theories of reading (Smith, 1988) have influenced practice to encourage students to build personal and collaborative meaning of text as they engage interpretive, affective and associative responses. Peer-led discussion is rooted in views of reading as a social process (Bloome, 1985) and as a transaction between the text, the reader, including background experiences and knowledge, and the context of the reading situation (Rosenblatt, 1978). Interactive discussions encourage what Barnes (1993) describes as "exploratory talk" where students think at multiple levels, use dynamic cognitive strategies, problem solve and are exposed to varying points of view. Langer (1992) tells how questioning, rethinking, and refining understanding occur through discussion of literature.

Researchers have documented peer-led discussion as response to literature (Leal, 1993), have described factors that affect discussion (Alvermann, 1986; O'Flahavan, 1989), and benefits of peer-led discussions (Samway et al., 1991; Wollman-Bonilla, 1994). Vygotsky's work (1978) suggested that social environments provide opportunities for students to observe higher levels of cognitive processing as they actively participate. …

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