Good classroom discussions are high on the list of priorities for most educators, but what effect if any, does classroom discussion have on student comprehension and learning?
A recent study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology identifies 9 different approaches to classroom discussion based on a review of the research literature and concludes that the various approaches impact comprehension differently.
Many approaches are effective at promoting students’ literal and inferential comprehension, but relatively few are effective at promoting students’ critical thinking, reasoning, and argumentation around text.
Only a few were effective at both, researchers say. These were: Collaborative Reasoning, Philosophy for Children and Junior Great Books Shared Inquiry.
Teachers should pay careful attention to the goals of the different classroom discussion approaches, the authors write.
“A teacher keenly interested in enhancing a particular kind of comprehension or critical thinking and reasoning should consider how such an instructional goal aligns with the goals and outcomes reported for a given approach,” the authors write.
Virtually, all the approaches were very successful at reducing the amount of teacher talk and increasing the amount of student talk. But the authors caution that increases in student talk did not necessarily result in increased student comprehension.
In one approach, Questioning the Author, teacher talk actually increased, but so did student gains on many dimensions of comprehension.
Based on their review of the literature, researchers identified 3 distinct categories or stances, comprising 9 approaches to classroom discussion:
Stance 1. Critical-analytic–The goal is to query underlying arguments and evidence presented in the text. Approaches under this stance are:
• Collaborative Reasoning
• Paideia Seminar
• Philosophy for Children
Stance 2. Efferent–The goal is to search the text for information. Approaches under this stance are:
• Instructional Conversations
• Junior Great Books Shared Inquiry
• Questioning the Author
Stance 3. Expressive–The goal is to encourage students to live through the text and emphasize emotional responses to the text. Approaches under this stance are:
• Book Club
• Grand Conversations
• Literature Circles
Here is a description of one approach in each of the 3 major categories:
Collaborative reasoning, (critical-analytic stance) encourages students to use reasoned discourse in choosing among alternative perspectives on an issue. The teacher poses a question meant to evoke different points of view. Students adopt positions and give reasons for their positions as well as challenge the arguments of others, using the text, their personal experiences and background knowledge.
One study, which analyzed transcripts from Collaborative Reasoning discussions, found that students engaged in argumentation more frequently, challenged the opinions and thoughts of others, responded to challenges, and provided evidence or information from the text in defense of their arguments more frequently than did those involved in recitation.
Questioning the Author (efferent stance) aims to engage students deeply in the process of making meaning from text, to encourage them to question the author’s position as an expert and to read against the text. Students are taught to “depose” the authority of the author and to recognize that authors are fallible. They learn that the difficulties they encounter in reading challenging texts are not necessarily due to their own inadequacies. Teachers guide students through a text using questions that focus them on the meaning of an authors’ words. Researchers found approaches in the efferent category to be especially effective at promoting students’ comprehension.
Under the Book Club structure (expressive stance) students read a text, record their written responses to the text in journals and then use these responses to engage in small-group discussion known as book clubs. Teachers provide instruction on elements of a story, appropriate group behavior, etc. Students participate in community share, a whole-class discussion that provides opportunities for students to share information from book club discussions and to become more aware of issues such as the historical background of the reading.
Participation in book clubs has been linked to increased vocabulary, use of metacognitive strategies of self-questioning, summarizing and other strategies, particularly with struggling or ethnically diverse students. One study showed that book clubs enhance students’ conversational competence including their ability to sustain topics and themes as well as take the perspective of others over the course of a 3-week unit.
Comprehension and student talk
Researchers identified 127 empirical studies that pertained to one of the 9 targeted approaches to classroom discussion. Only 42 of those studies met the researchers’ other criteria for inclusion in the study, most importantly that they have quantitative data and measurements of the following:
• teacher talk,
• student talk
• student-to-student talk
• text-explicit comprehension
• scriptally implicit comprehension
• general or unspecified comprehension
• critical thinking and reasoning,
The age of the participants ranged from 5.5 years to 17 years. The mean age was 10.39 years. Few studies focused on primary grade students or secondary school students. The meta-analysis included 11 studies on critical-analytic approaches, 21 studies on the efferent stance and 10 studies on expressive approaches.
Most effective approaches
Among the approaches that seemed especially effective at enhancing comprehension were Questioning the Author, Instructional Conversation, and Junior Great Books Shared Inquiry. Those that were especially effective at promoting students’ critical thinking, reasoning and argumentation about and around text were Collaborative Reasoning, Philosophy for Children and Junior Great Books Shared Inquiry.
While a majority of American 4th graders are now reading and comprehending at or above the basic level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, very few students perform at the proficient or advanced levels. In response, many educators are now directing their attention to critical literacy or to higher order thinking and critical reflection on text and discourse. Classroom discussion is one way teachers hope to increase the levels of critical literacy among their students.
“Examining the Effects of Classroom Discussion on Students’ Comprehension of Text: A Meta-Analysis,” by P. Karen Murphy et al., Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 101, Number 3, pps. 740-764.