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Leading Group Discussions

instructor.jpgMany experienced instructors consider leading small-group discussion more difficult and more challenging than lecturing to a room of two hundred. The lecturer has significant control about what happens in the classroom, while the discussion leader shares control and direction with the students. The best-laid plans must yield to the never wholly predictable factors of the students’ enthusiasm, their preparedness, and the general dynamics of the group.

A little bit of chicken soup for the EFL teacher’s soul, for me anyway, especially knowing that it came from some kind of teaching assistant’s guide from Princeton.

Its advice on leading discussions:

  • Ask more divergent than convergent questions. In other words, questions which have more than one answer will lead to better group discussions than questions with one “correct” answer. In general, I agree.
  • Encourage students to hold discussions with each other, instead of expecting the ultimate response or final word to come from you. Sounds good.
  • Instead of your frequently summarizing the discussion along the way, ask one or two students what they think were the most important points made at each stage of the discussion.
    I like this, and might adapt “most important” to “most interesting” or something, as “importance” can be hard to identify when the point of the discussion is fluency practice.
  • Listen to what your students are saying. Hmm…do I have to? In fact, this was followed by “take notes and refer to good points later.” I agree that is an encouraging and nice touch.

“The art of questioning”

Good questions are the backbone of effective group discussion, but it will take time for you to learn how to ask the questions that will elicit interesting responses…Alternate between posing some questions to the entire class and addressing others to individual students. Remember too that you need to give your students enough time to respond. Don’t give the answer yourself or change the subject by asking another question… When students ask you questions, ask other students to respond.”

This last point is one of the tips I learned in my CELTA which is helpful for making a discussion more student-centered. I probably would have benefited from someone mentioning as well “but if it is a question on grammar or vocabulary, you do need to provide clear confirmation that the second student’s answer is in fact correct or a good example if it is not.”

Read on for some tips for asking good discussion questions from the same source.