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How to Structure Small Group Discussions in the ELA Classroom

How to Structure Small Group Discussions in the ELA Classroom


To foster effective small group discussions about literature, set your students up for success with clear guidelines, high-quality prompts, and discussion mats for accountability.

So you’re ready and excited to have your students participate in small group discussions.

Maybe you’ve considered implementing book clubs, literature circles, or just having quick conversations during whole-group novel studies, but you’re not sure how to structure the discussion time.

Small group discussions about literature can be tricky to facilitate, but they are essential because they allow students to build the conversation and collaboration skills they desperately need. In addition, they help deepen their reading comprehension.

By structuring small group discussions with clear guidelines, high-quality prompts, and discussion mats for accountability, students will be more likely to stay focused on the task while engaging in productive conversations and improving their understanding of the text.

Guidelines for Small Group Discussions

Like with any task, guidelines help students know the expectations. Therefore, posting the guidelines and providing feedback on their performance are essential parts of the process.

The goal is to provide enough structure to help group members stay on task yet allow them enough freedom to benefit socially and academically.

Students are working together to discuss literature.
Photo by Yan Krukov

Here are three essential guidelines for small group discussions:

  1. Stay on topic.
  2. Contribute to the conversation productively.
  3. Communicate respectfully. 

By following these guidelines, the classroom environment remains calm and focused. This allows students to actively engage in their learning but also to think, process, and reflect when needed. It also helps keep the focus on the text and not on random conversations.

Another bonus is that students develop soft skills that are critical to academic, personal, and professional success. Examples include working on a team, problem-solving, and managing time, to name a few.

These are important lessons to learn… not only for school but for life.  

Small Group Discussions for Reading Sticky Note Digital
Digital Sticky Note Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Novel Studies on Google Slides (grades 5-8)

High-Quality Prompts for Engagement

High-quality prompts are thought-provoking questions or statements designed to engage students in meaningful conversations. Prompts should be carefully crafted to promote critical thinking, reflection, and a deeper understanding of a text.

They can help ensure students stay focused on the text during their small group discussions, which leads to more productive conversations. In addition, teachers can use the prompts to guide them toward exploring key concepts and ideas in the text.

Some examples of high-quality prompts include:

  • What is the protagonist’s main goal? What motivates him or her throughout the story?
  • Do you think this story has a strong plot? Provide an example from the text to support your opinion.
  • What do a character’s internal thoughts reveal about him or her? Provide an example from the text.
  • How does the author foreshadow future events? Provide examples from the text.
  • Share one sentence that is important in the story. Explain why you feel it is important.
  • How does the setting establish the atmosphere or mood? Cite one example from the story.
  • Which character’s thoughts or dialogue helps convey the theme? Cite evidence from the text.
  • If you had a chance to speak with the author, what questions would you ask him or her?

FREE Printable Sticky Note Discussion Mats
FREE Printable Sticky Note Discussion Mats

Discussion Mats for Accountability

Discussion mats provide a convenient place for students to keep their notes so they can use them when it’s time to share in their small groups. The mats should have a designated space for each student to write or place sticky notes, and each group should receive one mat when they receive their prompt.

For each group member to contribute effectively, they will need some time to think about the prompt and to jot down their thoughts. Providing a few minutes of silent thinking time is essential to facilitate this.

For accountability purposes, teachers can quickly check to see if each student has responded before they move on to the discussion.

Then after the thinking and responding phase, group members can share their ideas and collaborate to develop the best response to the prompt. This process ensures that every student has a voice and is not simply agreeing with the first person to speak.

Modeling and Implementing the Process

Effective small group discussions take time, training, and practice. One way to help students understand the process is to practice with the whole class like you would if they were in small groups. 

Steps for modeling the discussion process: 

  1. Choose a piece of literature and a high-quality discussion prompt.
  2. Go over the guidelines and discuss what they look and sound like.
  3. Give students time to read the passage silently or listen to it on audio.
  4. Allow students to think and respond to the prompt silently on sticky notes or directly on the discussion mat.
  5. Ask students to share their responses as you facilitate a whole class discussion, ensuring they follow the guidelines. 

You will need to model this a few times before students can facilitate small group discussions independently. Then, once they understand what to do, you can have them try it on their own as you facilitate.

When you’re ready to try it with small groups, follow the same steps as above, except that instead of facilitating a whole class discussion in step 5, allow students to do that in their small groups.

Small Group Discussions Sticky Note Cards Printable
Printable Sticky Note Discussion Cards and Mats for Book Clubs and Novel Studies (grades 5-8)

Resources for Small Group Discussions

If you’re thinking about trying this with your students, I have done the work for you. I created two versions of a resource that include everything you need to get started.

The Digital Sticky Note Discussion Questions and Discussion Mats version works well if your students have their own devices in class or if you teach online. Alternatively, the Sticky Note Printable Discussion Cards and Discussion Mats is another great option if you prefer paper. 

Both versions include 72 total prompts divided into nine categories:

  • author
  • characterization
  • literary devices
  • personal reactions
  • plot and conflict
  • point of view
  • reading strategies
  • setting
  • theme

All the prompts are customizable in both versions, and there are blank templates if you would like to add your own prompts.

I hope you try structuring your small group discussions with these easy-to-implement tools: clear guidelines, high-quality prompts, and discussion mats for accountability. Not only will this help elevate your students’ communication skills, but it will also improve their independent reading as they learn the skills of text analysis.

If you need help creating an environment where students can focus on their discussions, consider reading 6 Effective Ways to Calm the Classroom.

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Jan's File Cabinet Intermediate and Middle School Language Arts

Hello there!

I’m Jan. I’m a pet mom, an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction, and a MASSIVE book hoarder. My philosophy of teaching is simple… start where students are and build them up with the right interventions at the right time. I enjoy making digital and printable resources for upper intermediate and middle school language arts.

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