Facilitating classroom discussions can feel like pulling teeth, especially when students are disengaged. Yet, classroom discussions are an essential component of the ELA classroom. Read on to learn 10 activities that will help you facilitate engaging classroom discussions where students are active (and dare I say eager) participants.
Facilitating an engaging classroom discussion doesn’t always go as planned.
Students with eyes cast downward, begging not to be called on. The deafening silence. The minutes feel like hours as you wait for anyone to say anything. Or those classroom discussions that feel so forced and scripted. Or the ones monotonous enough to put both you and your students to sleep.
You wrack your brain for ideas, knowing it would benefit everyone involved if there was a little more excitement and engagement.
(We’ve all been there.)
So, what’s the difference between those painfully dull conversations and the ones where students are actively involved in every twist and turn?
I’m glad you asked.
The Student’s Role in an Engaging Classroom Discussion
There is no doubt that engaging tweens and teens in dynamic and meaningful conversations can be a real head scratcher. And while many are quick to say boring topics are to blame, I argue there is an alternative key player to consider– student participation.
But what exactly does that mean– or, perhaps more importantly, look like?
True student participation is an active experience. It’s more than sitting quietly and paying attention. It goes beyond nodding of heads and taking regurgitated notes. Impactful student participation involves critical thought, deep reflection, and– you guessed it– engaging conversation.
The Teacher’s Role in an Engaging Classroom Discussion
But it’s not just the students we need to assess here. Many teachers have a hard time letting go of the reins when it comes to classroom discussion. Oftentimes, we subconsciously look for a specific answer that fits into our plan– but is that really what teaching is about?
Besides, students are often far more aware than we give them credit for. I’ve always believed students have a sixth sense for knowing when you’re expecting a certain answer. And rather than saying something wrong, many prefer not to say anything at all. (Enter: dull discussions filled with awkward silences.)
Therefore, we must reevaluate our approach to an engaging classroom discussion, looking for ways to welcome participation and creating a sense of autonomy. As teachers, we need to remember that engaging classroom discussions are less about what we want or hope students will say. But are rather about what they actually say. Therefore, we need to make the space and plan the activities to let them and their thoughts flourish.
In other words, it’s time to shake things up a bit in the classroom discussions department. So, without further adieu, here are 10 activities for facilitating engaging classroom discussion.
10 Activities For Facilitating Engaging Classroom Discussion
Whether you’re looking to introduce new material, review content, or simply share student perspectives, these activities will have both you and your students excited!
- Lightning Round.
Maybe you’re looking for a quick activity to review last night’s homework. Or perhaps you need a speedy review before a test. Either way, this lightning round activity will provide the bolt of energy (see what I did there) to an engaging classroom discussion. As for those students who might be a little anxious by the speed? Allow students to defer a question without penalty. Afterall, the game is about participation, not shaming shy students.
Let’s break it down: Prepare a handful of questions ahead of time. I suggest having more than you plan on getting through in your allotted time frame as back up. Then, simply pose your question (I like to project it on the board using a slideshow), allowing students 30 seconds– or whatever is appropriate for your class’ needs– to answer before moving on to the next question. Once you ask the question, call on a selected student to answer. Alternatively, if your class is really engaged and eager, you can amp up the stakes by asking students to raise their hands and keep track of points.
With the fast paced energy of this game, students will be eager to participate in the discussion before time is up. By keeping the game short and fast paced, you’re sure to keep the energy alive. Lastly, due to the fast paced nature of this game, your best bet is to keep the questions to short answer review-style ones. Again, you want to encourage participation, not add stress.
- Anticipation Guides.
Anticipation guides are widely used as an introductory activity to a new topic or text, tapping into their prior knowledge. It’s also a great way to encourage critical thought and curiosity as students challenge or support their thoughts around a series of statements relating to a text or topic. However, to expand upon the activity, anticipation guides can be used as the basis for an engaging classroom discussion.
Let’s break it down: After giving students independent time to fill out the anticipation guide, use the questions as a basis for classroom discussion. Since the questions on an anticipation guide are based on student opinion and perspective, they provide a solid foundation for participation. For younger and more reluctant students, consider adding a brief explanation section after each statement on the anticipation guide. This step will allow them the time and space to get their supporting thoughts out on paper before jumping into a discussion.
The best part? You can reuse and recycle this activity, returning to the same questions for a post-reading discussion. Then, give students the opportunity to compare their pre and post reading answers, reflecting on where their opinions might have changed and why. Alternatively, they might find places where they feel even stronger and have more support for their original thought. You can also ask students to share examples from the text where their initial responses were either supported or challenged.
- Would You Rather.
I have to admit, I love this discussion strategy. Not only is it nostalgic of summer camp and sleepovers, but students are eager to participate in these conversation starters. Similar to the anticipation guide approach, this discussion strategy invites student perspective into the mix. And even the most reluctant of readers are likely to have something to say when it comes to these types of questions. If used as a pre-reading discussion strategy, students will be quick to point out the connection between the questions they answered and what is unfolding before them on the page when they read.
Let’s break it down: Rather than telling students about the themes in Lord of the Flies, ask them: “Would you rather live in a society guided by rules or live with complete free will for all?” Similarly, prior to reading The Great Gatsby, you might ask: “Would you rather live a wealthy and luxurious life without any true friends or live a modest life with a close knit group?” You can continue to ask this style of questions over the course of the novel to engage students in a discussion about what they are reading. Long story short, the possibilities are endless.
Here are some other examples you could try:
- Reading Catcher in the Rye? Ask, “Would you rather be a loner or surrounded by phony people?”
- Reading Macbeth? Ask, “Would you rather choose your own fate or know what will happen to you in the future?
- Want to encourage your students to compare characters from different novels? Ask, “Would you rather be friends with Jay Gatsby or Holden Caulfield?”
The list could go on and on. (And so could the ensuing discussions…)
Activities For Facilitating Engaging Classroom Discussions And Encourage Movement
Let’s face it. Students spend most of their school day parked in a (usually uncomfortable) seat. That can be enough to stifle participation and enthusiasm alone! So, consider getting them up and moving as a way to change it up and spark an engaging classroom discussion with the following activities.
- Station Rotation.
While you might know this activity as a “gallery walk,” I like how station rotation just rolls off the tongue. Regardless of what you call it, this activity is an effective way to keep students’ minds and bodies moving. This approach helps build students’ background knowledge prior to beginning a new unit or text. There’s a lot of freedom as far as how you set up your stations, giving you the flexibility to adjust this activity to the needs of your particular class.
Let’s break it down: Group desks in stations where each contains a series of artifacts, ranging from excerpts and quotes to newspaper articles and photographs. I recommend setting up between four and six stations to prevent overcrowding. Then, have students rotate from station to station in small groups where they engage in discussion about the presented artifacts. Unless you are dealing with highly advanced students, I recommend providing a list of questions to help lead student discussion. Additionally, you can give students a response tracker where they can jot down their discussion points throughout the activity. Give students about eight to 10 minutes before rotating with their group to the next station.
An alternative approach is using the more traditional gallery walk set up. In this version of the activity, set up each station along the wall and provide large sheets of paper. Then, each student (or group of students) can add their thoughts regarding the artifacts and the accompanying discussion questions. Whether students are standing the entire time or moving from desk to desk, the benefit remains the same. They will be encouraged to engage with their groups as they build a foundation of background knowledge rooted in your chosen artifacts.
- Four Corners.
Similar to the anticipation guide, this activity encourages students to take a stand (literally) on an issue. Four corners can be used as a before, during, or after reading discussion activity. Regardless, students are encouraged to participate both physically and vocally, sharing their stance on a particular statement or issue. Whether you use this activity to engage in a full blown debate or a casual conversation, all students will participate in one way or another. And since they are physically moving into their chosen corner, they’ll be able to literally see the variety in viewpoints. This visual can be a huge benefit for more timid students by revealing that they are not alone in their opinions.
Let’s break it down: Delegate each of the four corners of the classroom to represent one of the following positions: strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. Once you read a statement, direct students to head to the corner that best reflects their view on the matter. I find it useful to set a time limit to prevent students from lollygagging around or being too indecisive. Once students are settled into their corner, give them a few minutes to discuss with others of the similar stance. By discussing with like minded students first, you allow them to build a sense of confidence in their reasoning. Before moving on to the next statement, call on a few students from each corner to share their thoughts with the class.
Now, if you don’t want to limit students to four corners, you can adjust this activity to be barometer style. In this version, simply use tape to establish a large line on the floor. Determine which end represents 100% agree vs. 0% agree. Then, upon reading the statement to your students, have them stand on the line in accordance to how much they agree (or disagree) with the statement. I use this approach when I want to point out that there are a variety of “degrees” of viewpoints on an issue, making it clear that it is rarely black and white. It’s also an opportunity for students to enge with each other’s options, asking them to share why they agree more or less than the students on either side of them.
- Pyramid Discussion.
Not only does this discussion activity get students up and moving, but it requires them to actively engage with one another as well. The result? You are able to build a conversation from the group up! Perhaps the biggest advantage of this engaging discussion activity is that the scaffolded approach makes whole class discussions less intimidating. Instead of starting off sharing their ideas with an entire group, students work their way up to that by engaging with small groups. Over time, the groups grow larger and larger, from partners to small groups to (ideally) the whole class!
Let’s break it down: Pyramid discussions must be rooted in questions where students could (and ideally do) eventually come to agreement. Therefore, you must plan your questions accordingly. Thus, avoid questions that have only two potential answers. Before posing your question, have students select pairs. Alternatively, you can assign them. Then, reveal the question and have the pair discuss until they can compromise on a single answer. In the next round, pairs of students must interact with other pairs until they can come to agreement and form a group of four. This format continues until the whole class is in agreement, or the conversations reach a standstill. Either way, send students back to their seats for a whole class debriefing discussion on the activity itself and the topic discussed.
For example, let’s say you’re about to read (or have read) The Lord of the Flies. You might begin by asking your students to create a list of the five essentials they would need to survive on a deserted island. Alternatively, you might ask them to determine the most important aspect of a functioning and successful society. But regardless what the topic is, pyramid discussions are an effective approach to promoting participation and engaging student dialogue.
Creative Activities For Facilitating Engaging Classroom Discussions
Many students are reluctant to participate in classroom discussions because it is out of their comfort zones. They’re afraid of saying something wrong or looking like a fool in front of their peers. But that’s where your creativity in planning comes into play. Therefore, the following activities will help shake things up when it comes to classroom discussions, encouraging students to take on new roles and perspectives.
- Talk Show.
With a little preparation and changing the scene, even reluctant students can really get into the discussion at hand. So, instead of more traditional classroom discussions, turn your classroom into a talk show stage and let the conversations flow! Students will be excited to watch clips of popular talk shows, from The Tonight Show and The Ellen Show to The View and The Reel. Show a brief clip before debriefing on the elements that make the talk show entertaining. Then, strive to recreate a similar vibe for your classroom discussion!
Let’s break it down: As the host, come prepared with a list of potential questions and topics. Use this list as a way to help students prepare for the discussion, just as a guest would prepare for a talk show appearance. Allow students 10 or 15 minutes to review the questions and topics, jotting down any talking points they have. Then, whether you call a panel of students up or let them volunteer, they’ll take a seat at the table to participate in the discussion. Students can “attend” the show as themselves or as characters from the text you’re reading in class– either way, prepare for a lively and engaging discussion! Finally, remind students in the audience to take notes and remain active participants. Besides, you might call out to the audience for questions or to participate in a game.
If you’re looking to really get into, you can create a total vibe for your talk show and revisit it throughout the year. And yes, that includes creating a name and, perhaps, even a theme song! Students will get excited when they see the classroom set up and hear that host so-and-so is coming to town. Costumes, props, and decorations just add to the fun.
- Hot Seat.
The hot seat discussion game allows students to get up, close, and personal with a perspective other than their own by taking on the role of a fictional or historical character. This game not only encourages perspective, but engages students in higher-level thinking as well. The result? Students will walk away with a deeper understanding of the content and character.
Let’s break it down: Begin class by introducing which character or characters will be coming to the hot seat. Then, allow students some time to review material and prepare questions. Since students, both in the hot seat and the audience, will have a chance to participate, I always let them volunteer to take on character roles. If you don’t have any volunteers, feel free to break the ice by hoping into character and taking the hot seat yourself. Regardless of who is in the hot seat, the structure is the same. The person in the hot seat takes on the role of the assigned character while the rest of the class takes on the role of the press, asking them questions.
One of my favorite aspects of this activity is how it encourages students to consider character insights they may have otherwise overlooked. For example, when the game is over, I follow up with a brief reflection activity. As part of the reflection I ask questions like, how did it feel to step into the character’s shoes? Did you gain any new insights about the character’s internal or external motivations? Overall, the hot seat discussion game is a fun way to engage students in discussions around topics such as characterization, perspective, plot, and theme.
Alternative Approaches To Facilitating Engaging Classroom Discussions
Not all students are created equally. And with that means you might need to think even further outside of the box when it comes to engaging students in classroom discussions. In fact, you might need to reconsider what a discussion might look like. For example, do students need to be communicating out loud with one another to engage in meaningful discussion? Given what I’ve learned from distance learning, I’d say no. Therefore, you might want to consider the activities below.
- Silent discussion.
Just as many of the above discussion activities promote students engaging with one another’s thoughts, this activity does too. The biggest difference? This is a silent discussion activity. (Hear me out.) In this activity, students are asked to reflect on their own thoughts as well as interact with the perspectives of their peers.
Let’s break it down: Simply generate a list of questions, assigning each student to a particular number to start. (If you have 20 students, I recommend having no fewer than eight or 10 questions.) Then give them time to develop a response in the thread below their assigned question. The activity carries on as students rotate through the different questions and read the responses of their peers before adding their own thoughts. Furthermore, I recommend encouraging students to directly respond or refer to one another’s responses as the threads grow.
Ultimately, you can choose whether you set a predetermined time limit per question or allow students to move out at their own pace. And while I prefer to run this activity on a digital platform, like Google Docs or Classroom for efficiency, you can certainly get the same results by passing around paper copies of questions. Regardless, the silent discussion method allows everyone– including your most reluctant participants– to share their ideas and respond to the ideas of their peers.
- Tweet It.
Similar to the silent discussion approach, this activity gets students interacting with one another without actually having to speak out loud. Instead of asking questions, however, this activity works best when using quotes from real people or characters that express a thought or opinion.
Let’s break it down: Choose a series of quotes from historical figures, authors, or characters. Using one of the many Tweet templates online (or simply creating your own) write the quote as if it were a Tweet. (Yes, you can come up with a creative Twitter handle as well– but make sure it’s clear who the person is.) Hand these up around the room. Give students a handful of cut out “Tweet” templates. Then, allow them an allotted time frame to read and respond to various Tweets, reminding them they must keep their tweets to 280 characters or less. To add to the fun, encourage them to create their very own Twitter handle as well!
The best part about this activity? Just as people use Twitter to react and respond to other’s thoughts, you can encourage students to directly respond to one another using the “@” symbol– just like they would online! I always like to set expectations, such as they need to directly respond to at least five of their peers. This helps encourage students to reflect and respond to other people’s perspectives as well by disagreeing with or adding to what their peers tweeted. Twitter in class? Students will think it’s a hoot.
Teacher Tips For Facilitating Effective and Engaging Classroom Discussion
Now, as much as I enjoy each of the activities mentioned above, they might not all work for every set of students. So, as you plan your next discussion, consider which activities best suit your student’s needs. Additionally, you might need to make a few adjustments in timing or approach to better fit an activity to your class. And that’s totally okay! In fact, it’s encouraged. Teaching is far from a one-size-fits-all job. And therefore, your discussion strategies won’t be either.
However, I hope this post gave you some new and exciting activities to promote engaging classroom discussions for both you and your students. And before you go off and put these activities in action, remember there few tips:
- Planning is key.
While it’s true that over planning can be the demise of engaging and organic discussion, begin by establishing a clear goal or objective. Let this goal serve as the foundation as you move forward with your planning. Remember, certain activities require certain types of questions. Therefore, make sure your planning not only matches up with your underlying goal, but also the activity you are planning to use.
- Be mindful of various forms of participation.
Being present and participating doesn’t alway look the same from student to student. Instead of trying to put all students in a single mode, provide various opportunities and ways for students to participate. For example, if you know you have shy students who are reluctant to share their ideas, consider adding a written component to the activity. Providing various ways to participate will help you gauge a sense of understanding from even your shiest of students.
- Guide students to success.
As much as you want to encourage student ownership, it’s important to give them a proper springboard for success. The easiest way to do this is by providing a handout to guide students through the activity. In some cases, this might mean creating a set of questions to help guide student discussions. In other instances, you might want to provide a note taking sheet to help students record their thoughts, both holding them accountable and keeping them on track.
- Set clear guidelines and expectations.
Prior to beginning the actual discussion activity, be sure to set clear guidelines and expectations, especially for more student-led discussion activities. Afterall, be clear about what you expect students to be doing during the activity, making note of any time frames they should be aware of. Additionally, all students need to feel welcomed to the conversation. Therefore, review the importance of listening and being tolerant of varying perspectives prior to the activity.
- Make your rounds.
As much as you should be encouraging student autonomy during these activities, that doesn’t mean you are completely out of the picture. So, even if you’re not directly facilitating the discussion, make your rounds to be sure you are balancing student voices and positively reinforcing participation. Additionally, ensure students’ discussions are appropriate and stay on track. If you notice a discussion is fizzling out, be prepared to jump in and offer stimulating follow-up questions to get it back up and running.
You will find that your role and need for intervention will vary from group to group defending on your students’ needs. But hey! That’s part of what keeps the job exciting, right?
So, what are you waiting for? Cue the conversation starters and let the engaging classroom discussions begin!