Discussion Grouping


This post is written by Shannon Bosley. You can learn more about Dr. Bosley at the bottom of this post.

Discussion is a critical part of developing literacy for all content areas in a secondary setting, but it takes practice and planning for those rich academic discussions to take place. Teachers have told me they have avoided classroom discussion for a variety of reasons: time constraints, fears that the discussion could spiral out of control or even lead to disruptive behavior, worries about not having all the answers if additional questions are surfaced, etc. These are all valid concerns. Along with having pre-established norms and expectations, those concerns can all be alleviated with planning, practice, and protocol use.

Once you have decided the purpose of a discussion, created your guiding questions, and determined the protocol to use, you need to think about how you will group the students. (If you are unsure of which protocol to use, check out the School Reform Initiative’s listing of protocols.) These groupings can be affected by the content, the purpose, the protocol being used, the number of students in the class, or even the furniture or structure of the room. As a 25+ year educator, a piece of advice… don’t let secondary students select for themselves; be strategic. Some considerations to think about when planning for grouping are:

  • Heterogeneous groups or homogenous groups?
    • Skill level – Do you want the groups to be students of similar skill levels or a variety? This could also be affected by the protocol you selected. For example, if you selected Socratic Seminar, did all students receive and read the same text prior to the session? If the readings were differentiated, then that may be a factor in determining the groups.
    • Student interest – grouping students of similar interests could help with engagement.
    • Student diversity – grouping students of different backgrounds or genders can allow for unique perspectives to be shared.
    • Group size – Are there certain roles each person has within the protocol? Too many in a group can lead to some students being left out of the conversation.
  • Are there any students who need specific considerations due to an IEP, EL status, behavior plan, etc.? Does a particular student need to be or not be with another?
  • Are there any social dynamics currently happening that could affect the groups? A reasonable question to consider when working with adolescents.
  • How will the groups be communicated to the students? Will there be a list posted on the board or screen? Are students already sorted into named groups and you are utilizing those?
  • Do I need to consider furniture movement for the discussion? And if so, does my classroom management address movement in the classroom?
  • What supports will my students need? Graphic organizer, sentence stems, etc.

If this is the first time to attempt a certain protocol, remember to practice first. Students cannot be expected to be experts on the first try. A practice discussion session focused on a lighter issue such as pop culture topic not only helps the students learn the protocol but you as the teacher can access the interactions of the groupings and make needed adjustments while making sure your discussion norms and expectations are being followed. Take notes on how things went, have students reflect on the discussion, and make changes to the groups as needed.

Students need guidance and practice to engage in academic discussions. It takes time for students and teachers to learn what works and adhere to your norms and expectations. If the first time doesn’t go well, that’s ok! Try again. You could think about a different protocol, changing the groupings, adding a graphic organizer, or revising your guiding questions. Check out the planning checklist below for help in getting ready and reflecting so that your next classroom discussion is even more engaging and productive.

Planning for Academic Discussions Checklist

Do I have any IEP, behavior or social needs I need to consider? Does the topic have any impact on how the groups are determined?    
I determined the protocol for the discussion…Have the students used/practiced this protocol?  
How do the desks/tables need to be arranged for the protocol? Do the groups need to be able to see the board/screen?    
How do the desks/tables need to be arranged for the protocol?Do the groups need to be able to see the board/screen?    
What is the best grouping size for this protocol?    
How will I communicate the groups to the class?    
What resources do I need to have ready for use during the discussion? (graphic organizer, sentence stems, etc.)  
Is there any follow-up, exit ticket, etc. required for students to submit?Is there an evaluative tool for me to use during the discussion or after?    

Cover Photo by Kier in Sight on Unsplash

Shannon Bosley, Ed.D., is a 25-year K-12 educational veteran who has served as a middle language arts teacher, school librarian, instructional coach, district technology and curriculum coordinator, and educational consultant. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies at Xavier University where she studied reading engagement and leadership effectiveness for school principals. Currently, she is the Principal Investigator (PI) of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences. Her research project examines the Sustainable Coaching and Adaptive Learning for Education (SCALE) model that Reading Ways uses to bring research-based practices to classrooms nationally. Shannon is passionate about promoting adolescent literacy and continues to research reading engagement and motivation for both adolescents and adults.

Please connect with Shannon on Twitter (@shan_bosley) or via email: shannon@readingways.org

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