Silent Discussion Strategy: Engaging All Students' Voices

October 24, 2014

Using a silent discussion strategy allows for all students' voices to be heard and for the assessment of individual understanding of a text. Students practice agreeing or disagreeing and providing textual evidence just as they would in an oral discussion.Some students love to talk and in a class discussion, they dominate. Other students are happy to sit back and just listen, and these are the students I'm always wondering about. Are they really too shy to speak in front of their peers or do they not have anything to say? How do I know if they understood the text we're discussing?

As a solution, I came up with a "silent discussion" strategy, which combines aspects of the carousel and a double entry journal. When using a carousel, students move around the room responding to different prompts. You can read more about that technique here.

In a double entry journal, you select a quotation from a reading, which is written in one column of a page, and write a response to the quotation, which is written in the other column of the page.

During the Philadelphia Writing Project's summer Institute, we modified this technique by passing around our quotes and responses for others to read add their own responses. I enjoyed the opportunity to read others' responses and compare them to my own. I thought my students might also enjoy the experience.

Earlier in the school year, I tried used TodaysMeet to hold a classroom discussion as a whole, and while students liked it, many complained that too many other people said what they wanted to say; they didn't want to be repetitive. It was a valid complaint, so I knew I wanted this "silent discussion" to take place in smaller groups.

Our "silent discussion" was going to focus on a vignette from The House on Mango Street titled "The Family of Little Feet," so I created a set of six prompts that would focus students' discussion on key elements in the story: figurative language and the shifting tone.

Since I created six prompts, I broke students up into groups of six, so each student would have a prompt to be responding to at all times. Ideally, the number of prompts should equal to the number of the students in a group so everyone is engaged, but it's okay to have more prompts than students.

Before beginning our silent discussion, students had about ten minutes to read the vignette in class. You could also assign the reading as homework the night before. Then, for round one of our "silent discussion" students had five minutes to respond to the first prompt, providing evidence from the text to support their answer. I also asked students to put their name or initial next to their response so students in their group could refer directly to them in later responses when agreeing or disagreeing.
Using a silent discussion strategy allows for all students' voices to be heard and for the assessment of individual understanding of a text. Students practice agreeing or disagreeing and providing textual evidence just as they would in an oral discussion.
When the five minutes for round one was up, students passed to the left or right (this direction needs to be consistent throughout the discussion. Now each student had a new prompt to which one other student had responded. In round two, six minutes long, students needed to read the first response and agree or disagree before providing their own response and differing or additional evidence.

In subsequent rounds, the amount of time continues to slightly increase as students have more responses to read over before writing their own. Using a timer increases the sense of urgency and decreases chatter while writing. It does become more and more challenging for students to find evidence other students haven't already mentioned so make sure the prompts you choose can be supported in a number of ways so students don't become repetitive.

This was my first time using this strategy and I was impressed with its success. Students who are resistant to engaging in oral classroom discussion and students who are often off task in class were focused and participating. Students were courageous enough to agree and disagree with their peers and as asked, provided evidence from the text to support their arguments.

This strategy also allowed students to work together as a group while ensuring maximum participation. I sometimes struggle with finding ways to create meaningful individual roles for students in groups to ensure that all members are contributing to the group's work. For example, when we do vocabulary review, I allow students to work in teams and I monitor the room, listening to the conversations teams are having, but at the end of the class I cannot concretely assess each individual students' understanding.

At the end of the class after using this strategy, I could read over what each individual student "said" and assess their understanding of tone and figurative language as well as their general comprehension of the short story. You can find the silent discussion prompts and the rest of this lesson on narratives here.

For more ideas and resources for teaching literature:

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  1. How cool that your students are entering that contest! We do a Rachel's Challenge type week where we wear purple and talk about bullying prevention. Glad I stopped in!
    Teaching and Much Moore