It is a truth universally acknowledged that discussion is central to the teaching of English Literature. Discussion is a way by which teachers can check their students’ understanding, and take that a step further. Almost every lesson, a student will say something that someone in the class (including the teacher) won’t have considered, and so discussion also allows the sharing of a diverse range of thoughts and interpretations. And, of course, as James Britton commented, “reading and writing float on a sea of talk” – so developing our students’ oracy skills supports their engagement with the written word.
Yet I’m sure we’ve all had those “anyone, anyone” lessons where no student speaks, just as we must have all had occasions when some students speak far too much. So how can we ensure our quieter students speak up, at the same time as bringing focus to the comments made by our more verbose students? As a teacher in a state school in the north east of England, perhaps a more profound question for me is how can I teach my students to express themselves in a way that will allow them to make the most of the education and employment opportunities available to them? It’s all about cultural capital, after all.
In order to prompt excellent discussion, we first need to create what Mary Myatt terms a “psychologically safe space” in which “people feel they can offer suggestions and take sensible risks without provoking retaliation or ridicule”. In writing this, Myatt was focussing on creating discussion amongst staff – but I think it is equally applicable to our A Level lessons as well. As Tom Bennett explains, in order to create these conditions for discussion “we need to make it easy for [students] to participate in discussion and hard for them not to”.
So how exactly do we do this?
Firstly, by ensuring that we are experts in what we are teaching – and that our students are becoming experts too. For us as teachers, this will most likely involve reading, re-reading, and annotating the text, taking opportunities for CPD (through MASSOLIT, LitDrive, and other online platforms), and through discussing the text with other experts. However, whilst many of us will continually talk about Key Stage 3 or 4 texts within our departments, teaching A Level Literature can be an isolating experience. As A Level cohorts are often relatively small, there may be only one teacher leading on a particular topic, and so there are fewer opportunities for staff to discuss the Key Stage 5 curriculum. This is why I started #WeekendLitChat, in which I pose a question I am going to be discussing the following week so that I can engage with other teachers and make use of their expertise to develop my own ideas. If perfecting our own subject knowledge is key to having confidence in leading class discussions, then ensuring our students are also becoming experts is essential for their participation too. Knowledge organisers, spaced knowledge retrieval activities, the use of online lectures, Cornell note-taking sheets, and many other strategies are now commonplace methods of supporting students to consolidate their knowledge of the text.
Alongside this emphasis on securing knowledge, we need to clearly communicate high expectations for oracy so that all our students know how they are going to participate in the lesson.
It is worth noting that most of the bullet points above emphasise the importance of students engaging with each other, as well as with their teacher; genuine discussion is not a ping-pong match between student and teacher, but a dialogue which moves around the room and in which all individuals respond to one another. Using the three-point strategy recommended for instructional coaching in Sherrington and Caviglioli’s WalkThrus can help to reduce the social pressure of this experience, as well as keeping the conversation focussed and precise. Essentially, the teacher is one point in the discussion, the students are another, and a printed copy of a text or a note-taking sheet is the third point. As attention is focussed on annotating or jotting down ideas, students do not feel spotlighted when they speak, and any feedback from the teacher which is focussed on correcting a response can be linked to the text, rather than to the student.
Of course, the outline above contains a number of very high expectations – and, for example, how many of us consistently speak in full, detailed sentences when we are encountering new ideas? In order to scaffold students to meet these expectations we can deploy a range of questioning strategies. The first of these is ABC questioning:
oAgree – do you agree/disagree with X’s idea? Why? Where is your evidence for that? Does that link to Y’s thoughts about…?
oBuild – what can you add to Z’s thinking there? What evidence might Z be able to use to support their argument? What might Z have forgotten? Could Z link this idea to another character in the text?
oChallenge – what about the counter-argument that…? Have you considered…? How do X’s ideas counter what you are saying?
These questions should be bounced around the classroom, ensuring full participation of every student. Pre-releasing questions can also make a discussion low-stakes, as students have had time to prepare in advance.
Another questioning strategy that I’m sure everyone uses is think – pair – share, as it allows students to rehearse and confirm their ideas with a partner before speaking in front of the class. I often ask students to draw a quick table to record their notes:
And during the paired discussion, I provide challenging sentence stems and word or quotation banks to give quieter students a starting point, and more verbose students a means of focussing their comments:
When we progress to the share section of the discussion, asking “what did you and your partner discuss” can be a great way of reducing the pressure of giving a “correct” response, as well as providing students with the challenge of expressing their personal views in their own voice – which is, of course, essential in A Level essay-writing. As recommended by Stacey Reay, placing limits on how much students have to say (“give me one sentence to summarise your conversation”) can alleviate the pressure on anxious students, and can force talkative students to refine and condense their ideas.
Another strategy which can help to support students’ discussion is through using post its (controversial, I know):
Through all of this, we need to continue to prompt students to meet our high expectations, and often the challenge they face is speaking in full, detailed sentences and using precise vocabulary or references to the text. Therefore, I recommend using scripts involving rehearsal and repetition:
Whilst some of these strategies might seem a bit awkward at first, as students become more fluent they will appreciate the opportunities we are giving them to improve their speaking.