5 How to Conduct Classroom Discussions

5.1 Introduction

We are sure that in planning your lessons, you will have thought to incorporate discussion activities at some point or another.

Have you considered the following points when you are planning such activities?

  1. Why is it important to have classroom discussions?

Which of the following do you think is the most important reason? Click on your choice.

  1. What skills are students practising when they are discussing?

Of the following skills, which is the most important? Click on your choice.

  1. What is your role when you are conducting a classroom discussion?

Which of the following roles is considered to be the most important. Click on your choice.

  1. Is the discussion going to be with the whole class or in groups?
  2. If the discussion is in groups, how are the students going to be grouped?

We are going to discuss these points in the following pages.

5.2 Importance of Classroom Discussions

What is a discussion?
It is, to put it simply, an exchange of opinions or ideas.

In whole-class or group discussions,

Students learn:
  1. to express themselves clearly,
  2. to justify opinions,
  3. to tolerate different views.

Discussions give them a chance:

  1. to ask for clarification,
  2. to examine their own thinking,
  3. to evaluate ideas,
  4. to synthesize personal viewpoints.

Students also have an opportunity to assume responsibility by taking leadership roles in the group.

Look at each of the following statements made by your students and state which of the above skills it reflects; click at the numbers to check your responses:
# Statement Skill
1 "Could you please restate that point again?"  1   2   3   4 
 5   6   7 
2 "I hold a strong opinion on this matter, but I am willing to hear what you have to say"  1   2   3   4 
 5   6   7 
3 "Let me explain why I think "Let me explain why I think teenagers should be home by 10 p.m. every night"  1   2   3   4 
 5   6   7 

Classroom discussions can also have their disadvantages.

  1. They can be quite unpredictable.
  2. They may digress into noisy and meaningless exchanges.
  3. Some students in the group may have great difficulty participating and may become anxious if forced to speak.
  4. A few students may dominate the discussion while the others daydream.

To ensure that classroom discussions become useful avenues for learning and the practice of language, what does the teacher have to do?

You, as a teacher, have to plan carefully how you are going to conduct them.

Please write your suggestions below of how to overcome the above disadvantages. Once you have submitted your suggestions you will be presented with our suggestions for you to compare with yours.

Your Suggestions (type into the box below):

5.3 Class Discussion Skills

We must prepare our students
      to participate in classroom discussion
            by describing, modelling,
                 and providing opportunities for them
                       to practise classroom
                              discussion skills.

What are these skills?

  1. To be open to new ideas
  2. To make eye contact with the speaker
  3. To maintain an attentive posture
  4. To be able to organise their thoughts
  5. To speak clearly
  6. To take notes
  7. To allow the speaker to express ones thoughts without interruption
  8. To refrain from monopolizing the discussion
  9. To refrain from ridiculing other students' ideas

How can you model or provide opportunities for your students to practise these skills? Share your ideas here.

Submit your suggestions by email to

I. To be open to new ideas:

  1. Expose students to different perspectives of a problem or issue.
  2. Ask all students to read all or part of a book, take notes on a lecture, or view a film to provide the necessary background information for the discussion.

II. To make eye contact with the speaker:

  1. Look up at the speaker as he/she speaks.
  2. Occasionally, nod your head or smile to show your agreement.

III. To maintain an attentive posture:

  1. Indicate that you are listening attentively by occasionally nodding your head and keeping eye contact with the speaker.
  2. Avoid twiddling a pen or pencil as you are listening.

IV. To be able to organise one's thoughts:

  1. Put down on paper the ideas as they come to you.
  2. Don't rush to give a response.

V. To speak clearly:

  1. Look up at the others as you speak.
  2. Sit up properly as you speak; don't slouch.

VI. To take notes:

  1. If you are the 'reporter', take down notes systematically.
  2. Devise your own short forms and make sure that you have sufficient pencil and paper nearby.

VII. To allow the speaker to express his thoughts without interruption:

  1. Give him sufficient time to speak.
  2. If you were the group leader or moderator, be alert to stop inappropriate interruptions from other members while the speaker is talking.

VIII. To refrain from monopolizing the discussion:

  1. Keep track of the time that you have been speaking.
  2. Check whether the other members of the group are too quiet

IX. To refrain from ridiculing other students' ideas:

  1. Don't laugh when a speaker makes a mistake.
  2. Let the speaker finish his speech before you interrupt.

5.4 Whole-Class Discussion

How can you initiate this activity?

  1. Show a picture or an object that evokes students’ curiosity
Which of the two pictures below will better evoke your students’ curiosity? Why?
Picture A
Siti Nurhaliza - PBSM Cartoon
The Star 28 Aug, 1999, Page 2
Picture B
Siti Nurhaliza - PBSM News
The Star 25 Aug, 1999, Front Page
  1. Ask a question that allows students to give different answers

Which of the following questions will allow the students to give different answers and will lead to a discussion? Why?

  1. As of today, how many deaths have occurred due to the JE virus?
  2. How can we prevent the JE virus from spreading to more areas of our country?

Click on the statement to see our answer.

  1. Express your opinion on a topic and invite students to share theirs

Which statement is more likely to encourage your students to share their opinion with you?

  1. “In my opinion, Langkawi is the most beautiful island in the world. What do you think?”
  2. “I believe that it is more important to be healthy than wealthy. What do you think?"

Click on the statement to see our answer.

  1. Present a problem
    Example: How can our school help the victims of the JE virus?

What factors will determine whether whole-class discussion is going to be successful or not?

TWO important points to consider:

5.5 Group Discussion

1.  Grouping your students – How do you go about it?

Most times the physical arrangement of the classroom determines the size and component of the groups.

2.   Controlling the groups – Who does it?

3.   Should each group have a ‘leader’ and a ‘reporter’?

Problems with group discussions -- How can you solve them?

For EACH problem, suggest a solution and then click on the SUGGESTIONS button to see what we think.

1. There are too many students in the class.

I think that the problem could be solved by:

Click this button to see our suggestion:
Suggestion Button

2. The desks in my classroom cannot be moved.

I think that the problem could be solved by:

Click this button to see our suggestion
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3. A group discussion takes up a lot of time.

I think that the problem could be solved by:

Click this button to see our suggestion
Suggestion Button

My students will not talk in English.

I think that the problem could be solved by:

Click this button to see our suggestion
Suggestion Button

5. My best students do all the work.

I think that the problem could be solved by:

Click this button to see our suggestion
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6. My students make mistakes and I can’t correct them.

I think that the problem could be solved by:

Click this button to see our suggestion
Suggestion Button

5.6 Revision

Let us recapitulate the main points that have been raised on the topic of how to organise classroom discussion.

Select your answer by clicking on the word/group of words that best fill the sentence. If you select the right answer, the checkbox will be ticked, if you select the wrong answer, it will stay blank.

Classroom discussion activities are important for a teacher to plan for in her lesson as they allow her students to exchange/invent/create ideas and opinions/opportunities/experiences .

The teacher must make sure that her students are given the opportunity to be informed, to observe and to practise appropriate workshop/life/classroom discussion skills that can lead to detailed/long/fruitful discussions .

When students are acting out as speakers in the discussion, they must be able to address a crowd/organise their thoughts/keep people amused and crack jokes/speak clearly/be embarrassed .

As listeners, they must make eye contact with the listener/not talk/be quiet and laugh with the speaker/not yawn/not ridicule the speakerís ideas .

When the teacher is organising a whole-class discussion, she must make sure that the stimulus she uses to initiate the discussion must be motivating/useful/familiar to the students and that she does not impose her opinion/strength/words on them.

When planning for class/group/general discussion , the teacher should not plan to have more than ten/eight/three students in a group.

She should also plan to have students of high/low/mixed abilities in a group to encourage fluency in the language they are learning.

Once students have been given an appropriate activity for discussion, the teacher must get out of the way/constantly monitor/keep a close eye on them and let the students get on with it.

The teacher can overcome the problem of having too many students in the class for group discussions by grouping them as simply as possible and using common/past/simple) activities that are not likely to go wrong.

It is not wrong that, especially in the beginning, the students might be discussing in their dialect/mother tongue/national language rather than in the target language but the teacher can plan not to let this happen too often by making sure that the activities are at the right level for her students and that they are making the best/an appropriate/the minimal use of the little that they know.

5.7 Links