How do students discuss literature in peer-led groups?

7048967605_1754966fcb_zWhat do students talk about in peer-led discussion groups when they are asked to make meaning of a literary text? How much of their time is spent in use of comprehension strategies and what kind of comprehension strategies do they use?

To analyze typical peer-led discussions, researchers Jennifer Berne and Kathleen Clark divided a ninth-grade class of 29 students into six groups, recorded student discussions and then coded transcripts of the discussions to identify the types of comments made by students.

“As proponents of collaborative, constructivist literacy learning, we were delighted to see that these students could sustain talk about the text in small, peer-led groups,” they write in the May 2006 issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.

Peer-led discussion groups are a popular instructional practice in the classroom. Previous studies have shown that peer-led discussions help to engage students in their own learning and in developing their own ideas and encourage participation by students of differing abilities. There is emerging interest in how student groups use comprehension strategies.

In this study, students independently read Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery, and, the following day, participated in 20-minute, small group (four or five students) peer-led discussions in class. Each group comprised boys and girls with different reading abilities. The researchers and teachers took field notes on three groups and audiotaped all six, although two of the audiotapes proved to be inaudible.

The 29 students in the ninth-grade classroom studied lived in an economically diverse, but ethnically homogeneous small city in the Midwest. A few days before the peer-led discussions, researchers modeled a small-group, peer-led literature discussion group and role-played productive and non-productive talk.

Talk reflecting comprehension strategy use ranged from a low of 47% to a high of 71%, they report. But a majority of student talk about the text in four of the discussion groups was comprehension related, ranging from a low of 72% to 94%, the researchers found. Non-strategic comprehension-related talk ranged from 20% to 33%.

Based on their coding of the transcripts, the researchers noted use of the  following strategies:
• comparing/contrasting;
• contextualizing (situating in time and place);
• questioning;
• searching for meaning;
• interpreting;
• engaging in retrospection;
• summarizing;
• stating a confusion (in contrast to asking a question);
• noting author’s craft; and
• inserting oneself in the text.

This list of strategic comprehension processes was generated from “Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices” by C.C. Block and M. Pressley. (Guilford).  Researchers added the last three strategies based on their own review of the transcripts.

One of the most common comprehension strategies the students used was interpreting (taking information and assigning it meaning), text-based questioning or stating a confusion (e.g. “I’m not sure what that box was doing all that time”).

In each group, there was some attention to contextualizing in time and place. In one group, a quarter of the talk involved noting the author’s craft — paying attention to how the construction of the story influenced their reading — and engaging in retrospection.

“We were gratified to find that students did in fact use multiple comprehension strategies, as we defined them, as they engaged in sustained talk about the text, ” the researchers said.

However, the researchers were concerned about some patterns they saw in each group. In each group, one student did not contribute to the discussion beyond an occasional general comment such as “That’s stupid” or “Wow, twisted,” or agreeing with others’ comments.

The researchers also worried that students moved too quickly from one subject to the next without much analysis. “We noted that their talk often resembled serial monologues more than true conversation,” the researchers said. Important questions were left unaddressed  They also noted  that strategy use was done with little forethought or intention “to create more complete and richer understandings of the text.”

They concluded that students must be trained in two vital literacy skills:

• They must know how to discuss the text with each others–learn how to listen to others’ ideas and questions and thoughtfully respond before moving on to other subjects, and

• they need to learn how to use comprehension strategies to help themselves and others as they work together to understand ideas in the text.

“Comprehension strategies during peer-led discussions of text: Ninth grade students tackle ‘The Lottery,'” Jennifer I. Berne and Kathleen F. Clark, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, May 2006, Volume 49, Number 8, pps. 674-688.

Published in ERN September 2006 Volume 19 Number 6


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