Academic journal article Reading Horizons (Online)

Fostering Effective and Engaging Literature Discussions

Academic journal article Reading Horizons (Online)

Fostering Effective and Engaging Literature Discussions

Article excerpt

As a literacy coach, one of my favorite aspects of literacy to train, model, and coach was literature discussion groups. As the teachers in my building grew in their abilities to lead, and scaffold students into leading, I was constantly amazed at the students' discussions. Every time I entered a classroom in which students were engaged in a literature discussion, I found myself sticking around a few extra minutes just so I could soak in their conversations. I often wondered what it was about the students' conversations that made them so special. I pondered how these teachers were able to make their literature discussions so effective and engaging for their students. Because of these questions, I decided to conduct a study of these expert teachers to understand their unique strengths and the techniques they each used to facilitate such successful literature discussions. In this article, I provide a brief overview of literature discussion groups, discuss the study I conducted involving three fifth grade teachers, and conclude with a scale I developed to assist classroom teachers as they reflect on literature discussion groups within their own classrooms.

Literature Discussion Groups

Literature discussion groups are a widely used practice in many classrooms. These discussions are known by many names, such as Grand Conversations (Eeds & Wells, 1989), Instructional Conversations (Goldenberg, 1993), Book Clubs (Raphael & McMahon, 1994), Literature Circles (Daniels, 1994), and Literature Discussion Groups (Dorn & Jones, 2012; Henderson & Dorn, 2011). Though literature discussions can take place in large group and small group settings, for the purposes of this study, the term literature discussion groups refers to groups of four to six students and a teacher who discuss a single piece of literature.

Many factors, including district expectations, curriculum requirements, and teacher preference, can contribute to the structure of literature discussion groups within a classroom. These groups can occur formally or informally, be student-led or teacher-led, and focus on a variety of text types. Some formats follow specific procedures, while others are less structured. In these more relaxed groups, the conversations are more spontaneous and participants are free to respond in-the-moment to questions, thoughts, and opinions of those in the group. Regardless of the structure, the ultimate goal of any literature discussion is to reach an understanding of the text. Comprehension, after all, is the point of reading.

Research has addressed comprehension from many different perspectives (e.g., Allington, 2009; Kintsch, 2004; McKeown, Beck, & Blake, 2009; Nystrand, 2006; Smith, 2012). When students are involved in literature discussions, they must be able to move beyond literal interpretation of the text in order to develop full understanding and make meaning. Each reader brings unique experiences to the text, which influences his comprehension (Henderson & Buskist, 2011). Because of these unique experiences, each reader must be treated as an individual, requiring teachers to know their students as learners.

According to Vygotsky (1978), the meaning-making process is the goal of all learning and understanding, and a learner's zone of proximal development is the ideal place in which to achieve this goal. Teachers who work within students' zone of proximal development are able to assist students in achieving this deeper level of understanding. As students interact with knowledgeable adults or others, they start to internalize the language used by the more knowledgeable individual. In a reciprocal process, the students are then able to use the language themselves to support their own thinking or the thinking of their peers.

The Study

My qualitative research study involved three fifth-grade teachers who had been implementing literature discussions for several years. The larger study specifically examined teachers' use of scaffolding techniques during literature discussions and how students, through teacher scaffolding, were able to internalize teacher language to then support their peers. …

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