Focusing literature

Discussion Groups

on Comprehension Strategies
Jennifer I. Berne, Kathleen F. Clark

Josh: Emily: Josh:

he following conversation recently took place in a fourth-grade classroom during a smallgroup, peer-led literature discussion The students were discussing Roberto Innocenti's historical fiction picture book Rose Blanche, a story of a young German girl who helps children imprisoned in a concentration camp near her home during World War II. All student names are pseudonyms. She did so. She did not. I know it's bad, but she did. When I was reading, I tried to think what else it could be, but I couldn't. She died? That is what you think? What made you think that? She died. It isn't said, but that's why there are no words on that page.

Our purpose here is to share how some teachers have helped students to develop their strategy use in such groups. We first present the general model of literature discussion group implementation that we have used in these classrooms. We then share examples of the classrooms' strategy-based literature discussions. Finally, we offer conclusions about the potential of these groups to further students' comprehension abilities.

Benefits of Peer-Led
Literature Discussion
Peer-led literature discussion has the support of a range of literacy researchers (Almasi, 1995;Au, 1995; Raphael & McMahon, 1994;Roser & Martinez, 1995). Among its benefits are increased oral language development (Almasi, 1995), engagement and enjoyment of literature (Fox & Wilkinson, 1997), and feelings of efficacy about the ability to understand and interpret text (Samway et a!., 1991).Research has demonstrated that students of diverse backgrounds and literacy development levels benefit from literature discussion (Blanton, Pilonieta, & Wood, 2007; Boyd, 1997;Brock, 1997;Goatley, 1997;Grattan, 1997;Martinez-Roldan & L6pez-Robertson, 2000). Our own research (Berne & Clark, 2005, 2006) has implied that an important benefit of literature discussion is its potential to help students learn to comprehend, that is, to develop their comprehension processes. Listening to students in a range of grade levels, from a range of backgrounds, suggests that these groups can serve as an instructiona I context for students to apply their developing knowledge of comprehension strategies. In the classroom highlighted in this article's opening, one in which we conducted a recent small-scale inquiry, the teacher's goal was to set up opportunities for her students to invoke and name comprehension strategies as they talked together. It was her belief that if students learned to both use and name comprehension strategies, they would not only be able to

Matthew: I think she did, too. Emily: Jessica

Matthew: Yeah. You have to make an inference. In this set of exchanges, the students are working together to understand what happened one day when Rose Blanche left her home to bring food to children suffering in the concentration camp and failed to return horne to her mother. The author does not say that Rose has died. Rather, the illustration shows her, and German soldiers with rifles pointed, shrouded in fog beside the abandoned camp. The author writes, "The soldiers saw the enemy everywhere," and "There was a shot." The reader is left to draw the inference that a bullet from a skittish German soldier's gun killed Rose. This short exchange from a literature discussion group shows the power of such talk to help students not only to construct meaning but also to identify the manner in which that meaning was constructed. In recent years, teachers with whom we have worked have sought to make small-group, peer-led literature discussions sites for comprehension strategy practice.


The Reading Teacher, 62(1), pp. 74-79 1598/RT.62.1. 9

© 2008 International
ISSN: 0034-0561

Reading Association print 11936-2714 online

understand better the particular text under study but also become better able to comprehend future texts. She believes, as scholars have suggested (Palincsar & Brown, 1984;Paris & Myers, 1981),that understanding a strategy is only half the battle. Students also need to know when and how to activate that strategy. As Keene and Zimmermann (1997) noted, skilled readers are those who can activate and employ strategies intentionally. This takes practice

A Model of Discussion Implementation
In Table 1, we summarize the model of literature discussion group implementation with which we have had success. In the model, teachers first introduce students to the practice of literature discussion groups by discussing, generally, the format and the purpose. Next, teachers gather together with other adults in a group to demonstrate talking about texts with special attention to comprehension strategies. Following this, the teacher debriefs with the group of adults and students. The teacher first asks the adult participants how it felt to read and respond. Students have the opportunity to listen carefully to

the experiences of the adult discussion participants. They then ask questions of the adults to clarify their understanding of what should and should not happen in the group. On a subsequent day, the teacher gathers a group of students together in a fishbowlthat is, a teacher-involved demonstration group-to attempt such a discussion. The teacher participates in this model discussion by prompting talk that will be beneficial for a focus on comprehension strategy use. Again, the participants in the group reflect upon their experiences as the rest of the class listens and then asks questions. It is the purpose of both these groups to have students observe a group in action and reflect upon the language and behaviors of the participants. Because the adults and the students who are modeling this behavior may be inexperienced, the teacher debriefs both the participants and the observers by telling what she believes was done well and what could be improved. Following the model discussions, the group creates what we term an anchor chart for desirable and undesirable behaviors that are based on students' observation and discussion of the adult group and the teacher-involved demonstration group. A sample anchor chart is shown in Table 2. Next, the teacher breaks students up into heterogeneous groups of four

Table 1 A Model of Implementing Time Day 1 Day 2 Procedure





idea of book discussion. group.

Teacher brings together four or five adults to discuss a book in a demonstration Students observe adult-modeled book discussion. 11 Teacher leads discussion on participant talk and behaviors in the model group.

Day 3

Teacher and four or five students discuss a book as other students Teacher facilitates discussion and strategy use as needed. ill Teacher leads a debriefing of student group.


Day 4


Teacher and students create anchor chart of desirable behaviors in the groups. Teacher places students in heterogeneous (ability, gender, culture, or native language) groups of four or five students. III Teacher provides students with strategy prompts (see Table 3) to help scaffold students' talk in the groups. ril Teacher monitors groups closely as students discuss and intervenes when necessary to prompt productive discussion and comprehension strategy use.

Throughout the year


Teacher circulates among the groups as they talk and listens to, guides, and scaffolds the students' strategy use, talk, and group processes as needed. During debriefings of literature discussions, the teacher helps students to refine their use of comprehension strategies in the groups and their group processes, language, and behavior.




Groups on Comprehension



Table 2 A Sample Anchor Chart Desirable behaviors in discussion
Asking questions ~ Answering questions and telling why you thought what you thought iii Listening carefully to other students Iill If you disagree, saying why IIll Calling attention to strategies you use IIll Going back and looking at the text

Undesirable behaviors in discussion
tfI ill

Talking without listening Giving an answer without telling why you thought that way rnBeing a know-it-all I>J Disrespecting others' opinions


or five to try to have a productive discussion with the assistance of both the anchor chart and a list of comprehension strategy prompts provided by the teacher. One such list of prompts is shown in Table 3. Finally, and critically, there is continual, contextual reinforcement of these group practices over time. Students need much practice to become facile in this process. Teachers who introduce this structure to students will need to spend considerable time guiding and scaffolding student participation, even after the initial set-up period described.

Table 3 Strategy Prompts to Support Discussions
When I read, I thought ...because .... ~ This is how I used my prior knowledge to help

me ....
m Let's summarize what we know.
ill iii

Ii!l I1a

What questions did we have as we read along? How did we use inferences to help ourselves understand? What connections to other texts do we have? What different perspectives do we have about ...?

An Adult Model Discussion
This is an excerpt of an adult model discussion that took place in a fifth-grade class. The teacher has read aloud Patricia Polacco's Pink and Say to the whole class. This picture book about the friendship of a young black soldier and a young white soldier during the U.S. Civil War is framed as a story that has been handed down through Polacco's family. The teacher has invited the building reading specialist, a parent volunteer, a special education aide who works in her class, and her student teacher to listen to the text along with the students and to then participate in the model discussion group following the reading. As the adults talk, the students are directed to pay careful attention to what they say and what comprehension strategies they invoke as they discuss. Reading specialist: I think this is a great story. I am trying to figure out if I really think it could be a real story. Student teacher: What strategies could you use to help determine that?

Reading specialist: I could think about what I know about the Civil War to see if it is consistent with my experience, so I could reflect on other books I have read or my own more general background knowledge of that time. Parent: I was thinking that same thing. Could this be rea]? And [ started to think about the stories in my own family, so I was connecting it to my experiences. Because adults have more reading and discussion skills than children do, they are able to provide a useful model for students to follow. After the discussion,the teacher leads the class in a debriefing of the discussion they watched, highlighting the places where strategies are invoked, named, or could be otherwise noted.

The Reading Teacher

Vol. 62, No.1

September 2008

A Teacher-involved Demonstration Group
In the following exchange, fiction the students discuss Gennifer Choldenko's AI Capone Does My Shirts. A work of realistic set during the Great Depression, the story is about a boy, Moose Flanagan, whose father accepts a job as a prison guard on Alcatraz so that the family can be near a special school in San Francisco The school is for children with autism, a condition from which Moose's sister suffers. In order to facilitate the kind of discussion she desires, the teacher participates. In the chapters read for this discussion, the family is introduced and getting situated in their new circumstances on AJcatraz. One student is confused about why the family has relocated to Alcatraz. Sam: I don't get it. It sounds like it'll be a lot of fun, but why'd they have to move to Alcatraz? I mean, the dad could work there, but why'd the family have to move there? Keisha Hmmmm. Does anybody know anything about why they had to move there? Keisha's question implies that the group should consider its prior knowledge, but students need a little more focus to be successful. The teacher prompts students to make connections to a specific kind of prior knowledge that she believes they likely have given previous social studies instruction. Teacher: Use your prior knowledge. Ask yourselves what you know about the Great Depression, the time period in which the story takes place. I think that'll help you understand the Flanagans' circumstances. Keisha: Oh yeah-that was when the stock market crashed and a lot of people lost all their money. It was like that for years. Allison: My great-grandparents were kids in the Depression. They talk about it sometimes. They said jobs were hard to get. You kind of took what you could get. Teacher: That's good thinking. You drew upon your prior knowledge. Now, connect that information about the Depression with reasons for why the Flanagans moved to Alcatraz.


And, you know, they gave them an apartment to live in, probably as part of the job. My great-grandparents worked at a state mental hospital during the Depression. They got a free apartment to live in-and food, I think. Okay, so the dad probably took the job because there weren't a lot of jobs to get and they got a place to live on Alcatraz and some food.



Teacher: More good thinking. You used your prior knowledge-thought about what you knew-and then connected it to the Flanagans' situation. Now we have a better understanding of why the Flanagans actually moved to Alcatraz. Because students are new to this kind of group talk, the intervention of the teacher helps to direct them to use their strategies in explicit ways and to reflect on this use in a public way. When Allison makes a connection to her prior knowledge, the teacher names it and thus demonstrates for Allison and the rest of the students what she has just done.

An Independent

Discussion Group

In the following exchange, the students work independent of the teacher to discuss Louis Sachar's novel Holes. When reading Holes, students often struggle to track events because the story of Stanley Yelnats, a young boy placed in a disciplinary work camp for a pseudo-crime, is intertwined with the story of his ancestors, who mayor may not be responsible for Stanley's unfortunate predicament. Within chapters, students may be engrossed in the story of Stanley's trials in the work camp when the scene will suddenly shift to a story from many years before. This smallgroup discussion occurred after watching the adult model discussion and after talking in groups multiple times with the teacher's assistance. Following these groups, the students were led to reflect on the discussions by their teacher, who was able to direct them to remember the points of the discussion that were most salient to comprehension strategy use and naming. The students also used the anchor chart of desirable behaviors that the class created to support their discussions, and they had their list of conversation

Focusing Literature


Groups on Comprehension



and strategy prompts in front of them. In the excerpt, the students name and use the comprehension strategy summarization to help them make meaning. Davion Aaliyah: This was a really confusing chapter. Yeah, there was a lot going on.

if teachers provide scaffolding and practice across texts and time, this focus on strategic reading will help students to read increasingly difficult texts with good understanding.

Melinda: He kept switching back and forth. Yeah, first this kid's digging and then he's talking about his relatives. Timothy: Maybe here we should summarize? Aaliyah: Let's say what we know in order. Timothy: So, first Stanley is at the camp digging away and getting blisters. At that point, he is at the camp and he is digging those holes. Melinda: Then we hear about his great-grandfather and the curse he gets himself into. He made a promise, right, and didn't stick to it so his whole family is cursed.

Preparation Literacy. of this article was supported by the Shaw Fund for

Almasi, .l.F. (1995). The nature of fourth graders' sociocognitive conflicts in peer-led and teacher-led discussions of I iter aru reo Reading Research Quorterly, 30( 3), ~ll,J-3.51. eloi 10.23071747620 Au, K.H. (1995). Following children's leads through talk storyTeachers and children work to construct themes. In N.L. Roser & M.G. Martinez (Eds.), Book tall: and beyond. Children and teachers respond [0 literature (pp. 150-155). Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Berne, JI, & Clark, K.F. (2005). Meaning making in ninth grade: An exploratory study of small group, peer-led literature discussions fIIinois Reading Council Journal, 33(3). :ll-38. Berne, J.J., & Clark, K.F (200G). Comprehension strategy use during peer-led discussions of text: Ninth-graders tackle "The Lottery." Journal otAdolescent & Adult Literacy, 4.9(8), 674-G8G. doilO.1598/JAALA9.84 Btamon. W.E., Pilonieta, p, & Wood, K.D. l20(7). Promoting meaningful adolescent reading instruction through integrated literacy circles. In J Lewis & G. Moorman (Eds.), Adolescent literacy instruction. Policies and promising practices (pp. 212-237) Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Boyd, FB. (1997). The cross-ageelliteracy program: Preparing struggling adolescents for book club discussions. In S.1. McMahon & TE. Raphael (Eds.), The book (lui) connection. Literacy learning and classroom rail, (pp. 162-181). New York: Teachers College' Press. Brock, C.H. (1997). Exploring the lise of book club with secondlanguage learners in mainstream classrooms. In S.I. McMahon & T.E. Raphael (Eds.), The book club connection: Literoc» learning and clossroom talk (pp. 141-158). New York: Teachers College Press. Chinn, CA., Anderson, R.C., & Waggoner, M.A. (2011!). Patterns of discourse in two kinds of literature discussion. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(4), 378-41 I. doi:1CI.1598/RRQ.36_43 Evans, K.S. (200n Fifth-grade students' perceptions of how they experience literature discussion groups. Reading Research Quarterly, 37(n 46-69. doi:101598/RRQ.37.!.2 Fox, M., & Wilkinson, L. (1997). No longer travellers in a strange country. Journal 01 Cbildren's Literature, 23(1), G- 15. Goatley, V.J (1997). Talk about text among special education students. In S.1.McMahon & T.E. Raphael (Eds.), The book club connection. Literacy learning and classroom talk (pp. 119-137). New York: Teachers College Press. Grattan, KW. (1997). They can cJoit tool Book club with first and second graders. In S.l. McMahon & T.E. Raphael (Eds.), The bool: club connection: Literacy learning and classroom tall? lPP 267-283). New York: Teachers College Press. Keene, E.O., & Zimmermann, S (19~J7). Mosaic of thou ght: Teaching comprehension in a reader's workshop. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann.


Small-group, peer-led literature discussion groups can accomplish a range of goals. It is well documented (Almasi, 1995;Au, 1995;Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner, 2001; Evans, 2002) that peer-led literature discussions can contribute significantly to students' knowledge and appreciation of literature, facility with group processes, reading engagement, and motivation to read. The teacher in the classroom excerpted throughout this article has determined that smallgroup, peer-led literature discussion groups support the development of comprehension processes for her students and has arranged them to accomplish this goal. Like the teacher whose practice we describe here, it is our belief that small-group, peer-led discussion groups can be productive forums for students to develop their comprehension strategies if they are designed to be used in that way. By explicitly sharing the strategies they used to construct meaning during reading, and those they are using as they talk about text following reading, students increase their ability to think metacognitively about their comprehension processes. In addition, their thinking can serve as cognitive modeling in the use of comprehension processes for their fellow students. All group members, then, can become more conversant in the use and recognition of comprehension strategies. If these groups are designed specifically for this purpose and

The Reading


Vol. 62, No. 1

September 2008

Martinez-Roldan, eM., & Lopez-Robertson . .l.M. (20()O). Initiating literature circles in a first-grade bilingual classroom. The Reading Teacher, 53(4), 270-281. Palincsar, A.S., & Brown, A.L. (1984). Reciprocal teaching of comprehension-fostering and comprehension-monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, ](2) 117-17.5. oi:l0.1207/ d s1S32690xci0102_1 Paris, S.G., & Myers, M. (1981). Comprehension monitoring, memory, and study strategies of good and poor readers. Journul of Reading Behaoior, 13(1),5-22. Raphael, T.E.. & McMahon, S.L (1994). Book Club: An alternative framework for reading instruction. The Reading Teacher, 48(2),102-116. doilO.1S98/RT48.2.1

Roser, N.L., & Martinez, M.G.. (Eds.). (1995). Book tatk and beyond: Children and reachers respond to literature. Newark, DE: International Reading Association. Sarnway, K.D., Whang, G., Cade, C., Garnil, M., Luhandina, M.A., & Phornmachanh, K. (1991). Reading the skeleton, the heart, and the brain of a book: Students' perspectives on literature study circles. The Reading Teacher, 45(3), 196-205.

Berne teaches at National-Louis illinois,

University, Wheeling, Clark

USA; e-mail

teaches at Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA; e-mail




Groups on Comprehension


So much to talk about •..

So much to talk about •.•

So much to talk about .•.

So much to talk about ...

*When I read, I thought ... because ... *This is how I used my prior knowledge to help me ... *Let's summarize what we know. *What questions did we have as we read along? *How did we use inferences to help ourselves understand? *What connections to other texts do we have? *What different perspectives do we have about ... ?

*When I read, I thought ... because ... *This is how I used my prior knowledge to help me ... *Let's summarize what we know. *What questions did we have as we read along? *How did we use inferences to help ourselves understand? *What connections to other texts do we have? *What different perspectives do we have about ... ?

*When I read, I thought ... because ... *This is how I used my prior knowledge to help me ... *Let' s summarize what we know. *What questions did we have as we read along? *How did we use inferences to help ourselves understand? *What connections to other texts do we have? *What different perspectives do we have about ... ?

*When I read, I thought ... because ... *This is how I used my prior knowledge to help me ... *Let's summarize what we know. *What questions did we have as we read along? *How did we use inferences to help ourselves understand? *What connections to other texts do we have? *What different perspectives do we have about. .. ?

Bookmarks created from Strategy Prompts to Support Discussions from "Focusing Literature Discussion Groups on Comprehension S)gies," by Jennifer I. Berne and Kathleen F. Clark (The Rea" ) Teacher, September 2008) )

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