Starting Discussions

Many teachers assign guiding questions to engage readers with preparation texts and spark discussion.  Carefully crafted questions often work well, but there are some alternatives that might shift the focus of discussion, scaffold better, or just change things up.

Student-Generated Questions

If you decide to use questions to guide discussion, you might consider having students prepare them. At the beginning of class, ask them to write one or more of their questions on the board and then collectively organize and prioritize them for discussion. Note that this activity generally works best with students who are already familiar with discussion-based teaching. 

Written Responses/Reflections

Written repsonses to assigned materials can be used as an entry point to discussion.  This activity can be structured in a variety of ways:

  • Students can write their responses at home or in the first 10 or 15 minutes of class.
  • Responses can vary in length - perhaps as few as 10 to 12 sentences. 
  • All or a rotating portion of students can write reflections for each class.
  • One, some, or all student(s) can read their responses at the beginning of each class discussion. If more than one student reads, the class might then choose which of the responses to focus on in discussion.

Selected Quotes

Thought-provoking quotes are often a good basis for discussion.  Have your students select one or two memorable excerpts as they read the assigned texts. These excerpts might express ideas that they strongly agreed or disagreed with or that are particularly illustrative of important themes in the text.  Then, to begin discussion, have one or more students read their quotes and rationale for choosing them.

Sentence Completion Exercise

Teachers seeking a more scaffolded approach - perhaps for students new to discussion - might consider using a sentence-completion exercise. In this activity, the teacher gives students a collection of sentence stems, and discussion begins with students choosing, completing, and then reading one of them out loud. Brookfield & Preskill (2005) suggest some example sentence stems (p. 69):

  • What most struck me about the text we read to prepare for the discussion today is...
  • The question that I'd most like to ask the author of the text is...
  • The idea I most take issue with in the text is...
  • The part of the text that I felt made the most sense to me was...
  • The part of the text that I felt was the most confusing was...

Truth Statements

To encourage examination of assumptions, Brookfield and Preskill (2005) propose having students generate "truth statements."  In small groups, students write three or four statements they believe are true based on the assigned readings.  Once finished, students present their statements to the rest of the group who then question and refute them.  Brookfield and Preskill (2005) note that this activity helps students to "generate, and then prioritize, questions and issues around which further discussion and research are undertaken" (p. 71).


Brookfield, S. D., & Preskill, S. (2005). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. Wiley.