Teaching Tips: More strategies for group discussions

Last week, we talked about helping kids to take turns during groups discussions. Most of that post focused on helping kids who “over-participate” to understand conversational turns. But what about kids who have trouble merging onto the “discussion highway?”  This difficulty can stem for a variety of causes, such as anxiety, language-based learning disabilities, memory issues and motor-based problems like apraxia. Whatever the reason, teachers and volunteers can help kids participate comfortably by trying some of the strategies below.

Offer choices: Sometimes, emotional or learning problems prevent kids from answering a question with confidence. To remedy this, offer the needed words in the body of the question. For example, “Joe, for our class service project, should we make a bulletin board or clean the toy room?”  Joe can voice his opinion without having to formulate a whole sentence. Similarly, yes/no questions can allow a quieter member of the class to participate verbally, or even through a nod or shake of the head.

Every Pupil Response: We’ve all led discussions during which a few kids do the majority of the talking. When this happens, it’s hard to assess whether everyone has mastered the content, and even more difficult to encourage some of the less-verbal kids to participate.   Instead of asking, “Who can tell me if Jonah was obedient?” the teacher would instead say, “If you think Jonah was obedient, give me a thumbs up; if you think he was disobedient, give me a thumbs down.” Once the kids show their opinions, the teacher can then ask, “Jane, why do you think that?” or “Mike, give me an example that helped you make your opinion.” This strategy allows every student to show what he/she knows without the risk of being put on the spot. The added benefit is increased attention for all kids because they know that the teacher is expecting a response from everyone. To keep kids even more engaged, teachers can change-up the response method. Instead of “thumbs up/down,” use a variety of prompts: hands on head, finger on ear, hand on heart, etc.

Stage a Set-Up  Kids who have difficulty with conversation sometimes do better with a bit of preparation. Covertly pulling a child aside and letting him/her know the question that will be asked during discussion time can allow the child to ready him/herself for participation.

Think-Pair-Share  Sometimes, it is easier for a student to share ideas with one person than with a whole group. When asking an open-ended question, like “How can you show that you love your neighbor?” try the Think-Pair-Share strategy. First, tell students that you are going to ask a question, and you would like them to think quietly about their answer. Next, ask the students to tell their ideas to one peer in the group. Finally, ask the students to have one member of the pair to tell the ideas. This allows kids to participate in a structured social activity which may be less threatening than jumping into a large-group discussion.

Popsicle Picks  When teachers ask a question, some students can quickly monopolize the conversation. One strategy that can add some structure is eliminating the hand-raising in favor of picking a name at random. My colleague, Sheri Halagan writes each student’s name on a popsicle stick and then picks a name to answer her questions. Lest you think that this might put a shy student on the spot, Sheri is quite savvy when “randomly” selecting names. Although the students believe that she is choosing names randomly, Sheri knows her students and their needs. She carefully matches kids and questions to set everyone up for success during group discussions.

Wait Time We are ALL uncomfortable with awkward pauses in conversations! However, as teachers, we need to embrace the silence. In an age of instant gratification, we need to remember–and teach children–that sometimes, we need to think things through, gather our thoughts, and consider the possibilities. It’s necessary to build some wait-time into discussions with kids: “I’m going to describe a problem in our community, and I want everyone to just think about what your solution to this problem might be.” This wait time helps every student! In addition, when calling on students individually, resist moving on too quickly when the student doesn’t answer. Allowing wait time can offer an opportunity for a child to be heard.

Got a strategy that works? Please share it with others here in the comment section!
I’ll give you some wait time…


2 thoughts on “Teaching Tips: More strategies for group discussions

  1. Very nice post. Kids with anxiety often experience great distress sharing their thoughts and feelings in group settings. When children’s and student ministry leaders are sensitive to these issues, it’s far more likely that the kids will maintain their participation in age-appropriate programming at church.

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