Are you asking questions that draw on your students’ strengths while also stretching their minds?
Students learn best when they learn from each other.
But this doesn’t mean that your role as an ELA teacher isn’t critical. After all, you facilitate discussions, which are a large part of how students learn from each other. We all want to lead the kind of discussions where students lean in, build off each other’s points, and disagree respectfully. The kind of discussion where students see what time it is and say, “Wait, class is over already?”
During my sixteen years as an ELA teacher, I talked about texts with hundreds of students and facilitated faculty workshops on how to craft the kind of discussion questions that get students thinking and talking. As I honed my craft, I found myself returning to the same strategies because they worked.
“Whoa, Mind Blown!”
I remember a discussion I facilitated several years ago on Toni Morrison’s short story, “Rececitif.” It tells the story of childhood best friends, one black and the other white. The text never tells us which is which, but this point is easy to miss. Students conversed for a good twenty minutes without realizing they had assigned a race to each character without conclusive proof.
As confusion set in, someone asked outright which girl was white and which was black. Students flipped through the pages to find evidence for their claims only to realize there was none. Students then pivoted to talk through the assumptions they’d brought to the story, and we reflected that this conversation was probably precisely what Morrison wanted from us. At that point, Tommy, one of the more boisterous students in the class, stood up, put both hands on his head, and shouted, “Whoa, mind blown!”
Whether they tell you this or not (and most of them won’t), students love walking out of class with their minds blown.
Good Discussion Questions Are Magic
Facilitating the kind of discussions that keep kids engaged, even after they step into the hallway, is an art.
Luckily, teachers are artists.
But all artists can use a few pointers now and then, so here are six tips for crafting the kind of questions that will draw your students in and keep them talking.
1. Start Small
Good questions should not be so general or abstract that no one knows how to tackle them. For example, asking “How is the meaning of life portrayed in this text?” is overwhelming. Instead, ask targeted questions about a specific scene or passage, for instance, “why do you think the protagonist opened her mouth to respond to her brother but then didn’t say anything?” Students will feel confident answering deeper questions once they’re grounded in the granular details. Also, by looking at these smaller moments, you're collectively gathering evidence for richer discussion later on.
2. Make Time to Reread
Clarifying questions about plot, setting, or character are fine, but good questions can’t end there. You want to ask questions that require students to reread, pause, and rethink. After posing a question, guide students to a passage and read aloud together. Allow this shared experience to anchor the discussion. Reading aloud is not only terrific for energizing conversations; it also builds auditory processing skills and strengthens students’ social and emotional bonds with one another. Plus, further exposure to a text that students have already read will foster deeper insights.
3. Patterns Are Your Friend
Good questions often ask students to look for textual patterns (recurring words, images, metaphors, etc.). Guide students when doing this work. You can tell them, for instance, to circle all the words that sound angry or all the references to color. Helping students learn what to look for will empower them to access the text in new ways and make connections they did not make the first time. From there, the sky’s the limit, and you can sit back and watch them be brilliant. Eventually, you can ask students to lead these close reading activities, which will allow them to own more of their learning.
4. Make Room for Emotion
It’s no secret that many teenagers have pretty intense emotions, and ELA teachers can channel this into their discussion questions. Ask students how particular characters or situations made them feel, which might feel less intimidating than being asked to analyze. After asking how they feel, ask why to push them to think critically about the text and their own values. For students who aren’t as good at talking about their feelings, you can model what it looks like to have an emotional reaction to a text. It will be a revelation to many of your students that you don’t just think about literature but feel it too!
5. Make It Relevant
Students will be more receptive to any learning experience when they understand not just what they’re learning but why they’re learning it. How does it relate to them? To their peers? How will it help them in life beyond school? Asking and answering these questions not only lets students understand the bigger picture; it also draws on their previous knowledge, experience, and culture, which is essential when building an asset-based classroom.
When connecting texts to the real world, transposition and time travel are two great techniques to try.
In transposition, you ask students to transfer themselves into the text and think about what they would do if they were in the same situation as one of the characters. They’ll need to examine their reactions and assumptions, and, in the process, they may become more understanding of a character they initially judged harshly. Or they may come to dislike a character they were originally drawn to. Transposition not only requires some pretty advanced social-emotional skills and complex close reading; it also personalizes the text for students, increasing the likelihood that they’ll connect to it.
Time travel questions work particularly well with older texts. Ask students to consider how the themes in a text might be presented differently today or how a character might speak or behave if they were living in contemporary society. Would Hester Pryne be treated the same as she was in The Scarlet Letter? Would Othello still face the same kind of racism? Asking these questions lets students reflect on how much the world has changed. And sometimes how much it hasn’t.
6. Sometimes There Are No Right Answers
Good questions don’t insist on one correct answer. While some students may be frustrated by this uncertainty, remind them that the thinking process is more important than reaching conclusions. Learning to accept non-closure is a valuable skill, and it emphasizes the value of multiple approaches and perspectives. If students can learn how to simultaneously hold space for their own thoughts and beliefs and the differing views of their peers, you’ve done your job and then some!
Let’s Strengthen Classroom Discussions Together!
While there are many components of successful discussions, crafting strong questions is a great place to start. Meaningful discussions foster critical thinking, self-reflection, and empathy. They also build confidence, strengthen classroom communities, and move students toward independent learning. As an ELA teacher, there are few things you can do as impactful as crafting discussions that just might blow your students’ minds.
Before joining Carnegie Learning’s marketing team in 2021, Emily Anderson spent 16 years teaching middle school, high school, and college English in classrooms throughout Virginia, Pennsylvania, California, and Minnesota. During these years, Emily developed a passion for designing exciting, relatable curricula and developing transformative teaching strategies. She holds master's degrees in English and Women’s Studies and a doctorate in American literature and lives for those classroom moments when students learn something that will forever change them. She loves helping amazing teachers achieve more of these moments in their classrooms.Explore more related to this author
If students can learn how to simultaneously hold space for their own thoughts and beliefs and the differing views of their peers, you’ve done your job and then some!
Emily Anderson, PhD, Former ELA Teacher