Student-Led Discourse Made Easy

We call our replacement for guided reading Wide Awake Reading because we focus on teaching kids that reading means being fully engaged with each other. We approach it as a both a daily routine and a generalized philosophy around peer interactions. Rather than relying on roles (speaker, leader, time-keeper, note-taker), we rely on and build on student curiosity, collaboration, self-efficacy, and learning through discussion.

They choose the text. They lead the discussion. We listen and learn alongside them, coaching as needed.

The purpose is to shift students away from a belief that reading is about getting to the “right”, teacher-approved answer. We want them to experience a process of relying on each other to generate new understandings about a text.

Text choice is key because they have to be interested enough to want to discuss it and not feel like they need the teacher constantly to maneuver within it. Tools are also a necessity — if technology is not available in your class, dictionaries never hurt anyone.

We don’t come with a lesson plan in-hand for these small groups because we use an approach of following-in with contingent-scaffolding as the need arises, as well as open-ended questions and “uptake” (when teachers take something students say and redirect the group to engage with it, if they aren’t), with an emphasis on guiding students to engage each other and the text, and then coaching them to deliberate how to resolve any challenges or teaching them a new strategy on the spot. You can’t let kids have authentic conversation if you have an end point (or teaching point) in mind. That doesn’t mean teaching doesn’t happen.

Similar to a conference, we start by:

  • Listening in to notice what the students are already doing as they read — we look for and comment on strengths (see skills link below: do they have a shared purpose for reading? What have the noticed about the genre and how to approach it, and then what strategies they use for comprehending or drawing layers of conclusions and meaning).
  • Using basic rules of engagement as tools for students to internalize a routine and expectations of what it means to read a text with others, making their thinking visible so that it can be considered, examined and acted upon. This also helps teachers to avoid I.R.E.
  • Coaching students to name their strengths (name the strategies or textual elements they notice or discuss). When there is something you think they are missing, coach them to pause and reflect. Then, if necessary, be explicit and specific. Take notes for a later lesson.

In our school, our 9th and 10th grade students who have been in the country for a year or less typically do this for two weeks and then alternate to independent reading for two weeks (building from 10 minutes up to 15 per period). In the upper grades where students have had greater exposure to English and thus greater interest in independent reading, we do Wide Awake twice a week and independent twice a week (both about 25 out of 55 minute periods).

Because students choose the text and lead the discussion, the prepping involves planning repeated exposure to the processes involved so students internalize the routine. We plan groups we will meet with and where we expect kids to be, but we aren’t pushing them in terms of time either since that depends on their text. So instead we have assessments students complete depending on where they are at in the text.

Nuts & Bolts:

Pick enough leaders for groups to be 3-4 students. You can also do 5 but then management can become an issue. But you have to consider class size and tables, etc. Leaders alternate. It usually takes my students (most of whom read below a 6th grade level and choose texts that are 3-5 pages long) about 6 days to read a text of that length in this way.

In the beginning when we don’t know what students are interested in yet, we use Newsela, CommonLit and Scholastic magazines. After that, we can recommend a variety of magazines and websites we know have the kinds of topics or genres they are interested in (like Seventeen,, or science magazines and websites).

Also up to you is if you want to follow a routine where certain groups read independently on certain days, or if students only read in groups with you present while the others are reading independently or with pairs. You might consider that when introducing it to students. You know your students (and admin expectations around voice volume, evidence of direct instruction, etc) best.

Because we utilize contingent scaffolding, listening to the kids is OUR best teacher and there is evidence that following into, rather than re-directing a student’s attention helps with their retention of what was taught.

The Rules We Use  – inspired by / adapted from Learning Cultures’ approach to reading

  1. We have kids read out loud in some way so they hear the pronunciation of words. We don’t like popcorn reading, and kids find choral reading too distracting, so we usually ask them to take turns, as long as two people are reading along in sync.
    1. This quote from Mark Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Light says why for me: “Children who struggle when reading texts aloud do not become good readers if left to read silently; their disfluency merely becomes inaudible. Reading aloud and silent comprehension are causally connected…” (p. 130)
  2. Second, is stop to discuss anything and everything they think about the text. It is EXTREMELY necessary to emphasize ANYTHING because students, especially struggling readers, doubt they have anything worthwhile to say about a text. We also encourage they annotate everything as they go as a memory tool and for grading. (We also model what we expect when we sit with them and call out skills we notice them doing well to help their ability to notice)
  3. Third, we have a rule that basically says be resourceful and kind — our students are compassionate toward each other because of the community spirit built schoolwide, but definitely my last school was not that way. So, having a rule that teaches how to be respectful and responsive is key for socio-emotional health as well as for effective, collaboratiion.

“Many prevailing narratives about [emergent bilinguals] focus on what they presume to lack […]. At the same time, some teachers and researchers have pushed for a frame shift, arguing that more attention be paid to what students are doing as they navigate multiple languages, and to the mental flexibility and resourcefulness of emergent bilinguals.
“Some scholars (e.g., García, Makar, Starcevi, & Terry, 2011) have identified a particularly important dimension of translanguaging: students’ ability to use peers as resources to help them communicate their ideas and “make sense of their worlds” (García & Leiva, 2014, p. 200). Translanguaging as a social practice has started to affect language policies in schools — from calling attention to children’s language use in classroom learning to being considered in school and district policies around language use and instruction. However, while children’s oral sharing of their ideas in ways that draw on varied linguistic repertoires is slowly becoming more acknowledged as a collaborative social practice, scholars of second language acquisition have generally not examined the implications of this insight for the particular ways in which EB readers comprehend and interpret text, their textual meaning making.

(Aukerman, et al., 2017)

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