Helping Students Ask Questions (Small Groups, Big Discussions Part 2)

Facilitating asking questions

This is the second post in a series on student-led, small-group discussions. To read the first post, see “Small Groups, Big Discussions.” The series explores the challenges to effective small-group discussions and how to address them. See all posts under Small Groups, Big Discussions.

To begin the series, I think it is prudent to start with the basics of teaching students to ask thoughtful questions during discussions. The group of students in the following video was struggling to incorporate questions into their conversation, a common issue teachers often address.

Typically, students don’t purposefully ask questions in their discussions. This is an acquired communication skill that must be taught, modeled, and practiced. It’s through questions that students move among topics addressing a common theme, and the use of higher-level questions assists students in reaching deep discourse.

When these students were coached to use questions, most of their questions began with, “Do you feel…” or “Do you think…”. Using this type of lower-level question is typical, no matter the grade level, when students begin assuming the facilitation responsibility for their own discussions. It’s a natural transition moving from no questions to asking low-level questions. Knowing that this behavior is customary relieves some of the frustration teachers feel when coaching students to greater success.

The students shown in the video are incorporating this strategy in their discussion because their discussions lacked the strategic use of questions in the past. Two helpful ideas could be used to incorporate this communication skill.

First, students need to develop higher-level questions while they are reading to bring to their conversations. By developing these questions in advance, students are armed with fuel to use later when conversing with their peers. It also exercises their brains to move a bottom-shelf question to a more thought-provoking one while they have the luxury of time to sculpt their thought process.

This first recommendation requires the teacher’s assistance in reviewing the types of questions students develop and showing them how to transform lower-level questions to ones that provoke deep thoughts. A focus lesson could be incorporated into the teacher’s following day plan after noting through observation that students are not coming to the discussion table equipped with prepared higher-level questions. The lesson’s focus would need to include some questions the teacher developed while reading and sharing how an initial low-level question was transformed into one that requires deeper thinking and more engagement. Through the teacher’s modeling and guided practice for developing higher-level questions while reading, students will be better prepared during their conversations.

The next coaching tip is to equip students with a strategy to use while they are in their discussion groups. Often, students have difficulty constructing higher-level questions “on the fly” when they just begin. Offering them advice to start with “How” or “Why” before the theme of their thought helps them move away from questions that require a yes or no response. For example, a student might say, “Do you think both Gene and Neal struggle with their identity?” You might advise them to put the word how in front of the question. “How do you think both Gene and Neal struggle with their identity?”

The thought process students use to answer the question that begins with how directs them to think of ways to explain their response, whereas the question beginning with do requires wonderment of a yes or no answer. Sometimes yes-or-no questions can lead to quality debates on important issues. However, when students are just beginning the facilitation of their own discussions, their use of these types of questions often restrict the flow and prohibit thoughtful responses.

This initial step in the process equips students with a resource to increase their communication skills while working toward their independence of handling academic conversations leading to deep discourse.

Other grade-level examples and videos can be found in Deep Discourse and its accompanying videos.

  • Evaluate your students’ questioning strategies. What types of questions are your students using in their discussions?
  • What strategies have you used to assist students with using good questions during their discussions?

Next time, I answer the question, “What can I do as a teacher when one person does the talking, and others don’t contribute?” Look for the blog post on May 29!

Sandi Novak, an education consultant, has served as an assistant superintendent, principal, and teacher. With more than 35 years of experience in schools, Sandi provides professional development on a number of topics and initiatives, such as coaching principals and teacher leaders in developing strong literacy instruction, using data to monitor professional learning implementation, and developing school improvement plans focused on maximizing achievement for all students in literacy. Visit Sandi’s website, join her professional LinkedIn community, or send her a tweet @snovak91335.



Novak, S., & Slattery, C. (2016). Deep Discourse: A Framework for Cultivating Student-Led Discussions. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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