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January 11, 2015

A Teacher’s Guide to Building Student-Led Discussions

For college and career success in the 21 st century, teachers must develop students’ speaking, listening, collaboration, and independent-thinking skills. One way to do this is by shifting the classroom from teacher-directed to student-directed. To help you with this transition, you can follow this guide to building student-led discussions in your classroom:

Setting the Stage: The 3 Elements of an Effective Student-Led Discussion

All good discussions require students to be active listeners, articulate their arguments, and productively exchange with their peers. Before engaging students in discussion, introduce them to the elements below and, based on their developmental stage, ask them to integrate one or more of the elements in their discussions. These lists start with the simplest action, so once a student masters one component, they can move to adding the next until they are able to practice all elements simultaneously.


  • Make eye contact with the speaker and the audience
  • Display non-verbal signals like nodding and smiling. For elementary students, silent hand signals can be taught to show that they agree, disagree, or want to build on a classmate’s statement as seen here
  • Re-state or synthesize what another classmate has said


  • Use a loud and confident voice so everyone can hear the speaker
  • State a claim or opinion about the topic with supporting evidence
  • Explain evidence from the text(s) in students’ own words


  • Build on classmates’ answers using linking words to connect ideas
  • Call on each other to share in the discussion by asking questions like, “Can you explain that?” or “What is your evidence?”

Getting Started

Here are some tips for getting the discussion started:

  • Identify a text or text(s) to act as the basis of the discussion. We suggest choosing a rich text that will engage and interest your students
  • Identify one open-ended essential question that will foster debate and require textual-evidence to answer (an important CCSS skill)
  • Create guiding questions that vary in complexity to help students answer the essential question. You can review tips for writing great questions here.

Give Think Time

Students need time to process their thoughts before delving into discussion, so we suggest giving students a chance to jot down their thoughts about the text and essential question. After they have time to collect their thoughts independently, they can transition into pre-discussion tasks within small groups before going into whole class discussion. One suggestion for a small group pre-discussion is a rally table activity.

Play Volleyball, Not Ping-Pong

Effective student-led discussions do not follow Initiate-Response-Evaluate (IRE) model of questioning (ping pong); instead they are a natural conversation among peers with limited teacher interjections (volleyball). To limit your involvement and give students the reins, track your students’ progress formatively by recording information about student performance, meaningful exchanges, and areas for growth. After the discussion, you can use your notes to give students’ quick feedback.

Provide Tools

It’s helpful to provide resources for students to quickly reference throughout the discussion. For elementary students and diverse learners, try hanging accountable talk discussion starters like this free printable in your classroom. You can find more fun ideas on Pinterest.

Want to see these steps in action? Here are some examples of teachers preparing and conducting student-led discussions:


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