On the day we visited Brienne Cundiff’s first-grade classroom at Winfield Elementary School in Crown Point, Indiana, her students were working with the Junior Great Books® story “Those Shoes” by Maribeth Boelts. They were deeply engaged in this tale of a boy named Jeremy who must decide whether to give a pair of shoes he loves—but that don’t fit him well—to his friend Antonio. A discussion group of 12 students sat in a circle on the floor, while their classmates did independent work at their desks. When Cundiff asked the group, “Why does Jeremy finally give Antonio the shoes?,” several students were eager to offer their ideas.
One student began, “It said in the text that Antonio had tape on his shoes. So Jeremy probably knew he needed a new pair.” Right away, other students were ready to agree, disagree, and go back to the story to support their answers. How did Cundiff get this group of six- and seven-year-olds so comfortable with the process of finding and explaining text evidence? “Clear expectations and modeling,” she says.
Before each discussion, Cundiff’s class reviews a list of expectations that includes supporting ideas with evidence. “I find that modeling how to respond to a shared idea by finding textual evidence has been highly effective,” Cundiff says. Going back to a specific part of the story during discussion helps all students think further about an idea and promotes collaboration.
Because students can sometimes think that giving evidence means simply citing a quotation or event in the text, discussion is an ideal way to emphasize the importance of explaining how evidence supports an idea. As students hear divergent answers and consider which are most convincing, having them explain their answers helps them develop vital critical thinking skills. According to Cundiff, students learn over time that “the purpose of discussion is not to be right but rather to learn how to support their position with textual evidence.” This grounding develops students’ curiosity and helps them develop the stamina to explore challenging texts and ideas in depth.
The Junior Great Books story “Those Shoes” generated many questions from Brienne Cundiff’s first graders.
12 Teacher- and Expert-Tested Strategies
Choose texts worth talking about.
To inspire discussion, pick stories driven by character motivation or nonfiction texts that provoke debate. A text that raises questions encourages students to find support for their answers.
Tap into your own curiosity.
Note your own questions about a text as well as your students’, and choose a focus question that you’re genuinely interested in for discussion. Students can sense when you care about a question.
Emphasize evidence from the start.
Having students write down an initial answer and some evidence ensures that everyone is prepared to share when discussion begins. (Younger students can think silently or draw.)
Frequently ask for textual support.
If you often ask, “What in the story gives you that idea?” or “Where do you see that in the text?,” students learn to keep their books open and will often return to the text before being prompted. After a few discussions, students may also start to ask each other for evidence.
Pursue explanations of evidence.
Help students expand on what their evidence means by asking questions like, “How does that part of the story support your answer?” or “Why does that part of the text make you think so?” Questions like these help students see that people may interpret the same part of a text differently.
Offer sentence starters related to evidence.
Especially for younger students, sharing sentence starters like, “In the story . . . ,” “The author writes . . . ,” and “On page X, it says . . .” provides a framework for talking about text evidence. You can also have students brainstorm sentence starters and keep a class list.
Emphasize in-depth analysis.
Go beyond the superficial by asking for additional evidence and for different interpretations of evidence. Questions like, “Who sees another place that would support that idea?” and “How did other people understand that quotation?” lead to a more nuanced exploration of a text.
Slow down discussion.
When the conversation is moving too quickly, good ideas can get lost. Asking for evidence is a great way to help everyone think about and weigh answers. Give students time to look for evidence, and encourage them to help each other find parts of the text.
When students offer answers to the focus question, encourage them to go back to the text for sentences and words that support their ideas. Looking closely at parts of the text clarifies answers and may also lead to new ideas.
Help students clear up any misreadings.
While a good focus question has more than one reasonable answer, that’s not the same as there being no wrong answers. If a student makes a factual error in discussion, see whether other students weigh in. They often will. If not, suggest everyone look at that part of the text and clear up the misunderstanding without making it a “gotcha” moment.
Reinforce without direct praise.
Even though you don’t intend it, saying, “Good evidence” to one student may lead a student with a divergent idea not to offer it. Instead, show your engagement by listening carefully and asking questions. At the end of discussion, you can praise the group as a whole for their work.
Help students recognize progress.
After a Shared Inquiry™ discussion, students are asked to look back at their original answer and consider how they have changed or expanded it. After every few discussions, it’s helpful to ask students how the class is doing with key behaviors, including using evidence.