Talk About It! Helping Students Think and Write about Nonfiction Texts

When your students read informational texts, do they have trouble forming clear arguments or opinions about what they read? Does their writing seem mechanical?

If you answered yes, consider making time for students to discuss what they read before they write. Research shows that this age-old instructional tool boosts students’ reading comprehension, as well as their thinking and reasoning skills.

The Power of Dialogue
Conversation is a natural extension of reading. Think about what happens when you talk about something you’ve read; as you share what you read about and express your thoughts on it, you begin to understand the text more deeply and to refine your opinions.

Researchers have consistently found that discussion-based classrooms support and promote student learning. Students who regularly talk about their ideas show improved reasoning, inferential comprehension, and argumentative writing. They become better at critically evaluating, analyzing, and supporting their claims with evidence.1  They even perform better on assessments!2

Blending Discussion and Independent Work
Each unit of Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry guides students through a flexible sequence of activities that includes multiple opportunities for sharing ideas.

The Shared Inquiry™ sequence gives students three encounters with a text before they are asked to write about it.  Students first read the text independently and share their questions about it. This activity gives students the opportunity to ask and answer each other’s questions and to generate questions for further inquiry.

While reading the text a second time, students mark the text according to a note-taking prompt. Afterwards, students can talk about their note choices with a partner, explaining their reasons for marking the text a certain way. Through this interchange, students clarify their understanding, hear other perspectives, and refine their thinking.

Rehearsing Ideas in Shared Inquiry Discussion
In Shared Inquiry discussion, students explore an open-ended question about the text together. Discussion provides a forum for students to try out ideas that haven’t yet “gelled,” to hear what their peers think about them, and to revise, build on, and make connections between those ideas. Students learn that they can construct ideas, developing ideas and finding supporting evidence, together.

The goal in Junior Great Books Nonfiction Inquiry is not for students to simply learn the content and express a well-formed opinion, but to become better at the process of forming and expressing those opinions. Through the open exchange of ideas, students learn to constantly reflect on and refine their ideas as a result of listening and responding to others. As a result, students are better prepared to organize and articulate their ideas in writing after discussion.

1 Reznitskaya, A. and Gregory, M.  (2013) Student Thought and classroom language: Examining the mechanisms of change in dialogic teaching. Educational Psychologist, 48(2), 114-133.

2 Applebee, A.N., Langer, J.A., Nystrand, M. & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-based approaches to developing understanding: Classroom instruction and student performance in middle and high school English. American Educational Research Journal, 40(3), 685-730.


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