Inquiry-Based Discussions in the Language Arts Classroom


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Terry Pratchett (2010). “Diggers: The Second Book of the Nomes”, p.34, Random House source: [1]

Introduction and Overview


Everyone agrees that an educator's job is not only to teach material that students must know, but also to help students gain other valuable skills and attitudes, such as critical thinking and problem solving skills, interpersonal skills, the ability to apply learning to new situations, open-mindedness, and flexibility. When the ideas of inquiry learning and knowledge-building communities are combined, the results can be powerful. Inquiry dialogues, or "inquiry discussions", are fantastic tools for fostering all of these!

A few years ago, we spent a week during our August professional development with two prominent researchers learning how to implement inquiry dialogues in our classes. The best part was actively engaging in these discussions. Not only did we learn a great deal about how and why to use them, they were fun! They also required a complete rethinking of how, as teachers, we moderate class discussions. While a typical class discussion is teacher-led, inquiry discussions are student-led. The teacher acts as a facilitator, possibly summarizing or clarifying points, encouraging exploration of opposing viewpoints, or calling attention to logical flaws. Students work together to actively "make meaning". Because of this, students are able to take ownership of their learning, individually and as a community, rather than looking to the teacher for the "correct" answer.

Through these discussions, students can deepen their understanding of specific topics and hone critical thinking and analytical skills in any subject area. They always begin with an inquiry-based question that has more than one valid answer or interpretation. Argumentation is a key component; students must first determine their initial ideas and support them with evidence primarily from a text, but personal experience can also be used for support. Then, they exchange and build ideas, question and challenge one another, work together to determine a reasonable answer or answers, and justify why an answer is valid. Not everyone will agree, and the goal is not to have a "winner" as in a typical debate, but to explore and expand on ideas. Another great thing about this type of discussion is that students of all ages, grade levels, and ability levels can learn to do it.

This mini-course will focus primarily on inquiry-based dialogic collaborative discussions in Language Arts, but these could easily be adapted to social studies/history, as they are tremendously useful for exploring multiple perspectives on historical topics. Discussions such as these can be and often are used in other disciplines such as math and science, as well.


In this course, you will learn:

  • What inquiry dialogue is, some of the reasons why it is beneficial, and what some challenges could be.
  • What is involved in an inquiry dialogue
  • How to develop great questions (or judge whether the questions your students develop are good ones)
  • The roles of both teacher and students
  • Suggestions regarding how to support students and facilitate discussions in order to foster effective argumentation
  • How to plan for an inquiry dialogue session in your class

Needs Assessment

All students, regardless of age or ability level, are capable of deep understanding and critical thinking. One of the primary jobs of educators is to guide students toward acquiring the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help them achieve these goals. It can at times be a challenge to know how to accomplish this.  As teachers, we might sometimes observe a disconnect between what we think we taught and what the students actually understood. Another challenge is that students often rely on teachers for the “right” answer, looking for teacher approval before moving on.  Or, they might believe that there is only one “right” answer. Thus, in addition to understanding and critical thinking skills, students also benefit from learning flexibility in thinking and self-efficacy.

The primary audience for this instruction will be educators who would like to implement the collaborative discussion strategy in their classes. The course could be helpful for pre-service teachers, new teachers, and more experienced teachers who would like to implement this strategy.

After this course, the learner should be able to facilitate dialogic collaborative discussions in their classrooms. They will have an idea about how to do this in a language arts classroom with a range of grade and ability levels. However, this style of discussion is easily adaptable to all disciplines. The collaborative discussions outlined in this course rely heavily on teacher flexibility and their willingness to hand control over to the students, which can be uncomfortable for some. I hope that this course encourages the attitude that doing this (at least on occasion!) is beneficial for student growth and understanding in terms of both the topic at hand and other soft skills like communication, problem-solving, teamwork, and critical thinking.

Non-instructional needs that can impact the implementation of the learning could include class size or space available, especially if a large class is combined with limited space. It can be challenging to accommodate a large number of students in discussions of this sort, and limited space compounds the issue.

Performance Objectives

  • Given research on the effects of collaborative inquiry discussions, the learner will summarize benefits to students and challenges in implementation. (Unit 1)
  • The learner will be able to analyze arguments for completeness and effectiveness. (Unit 2)
  • Given scaffolds and guidance, the learner will be able to facilitate discussions and support students in building effective arguments of their own.. (Unit 2)
  • Given research on or readings about collaborative inquiry discussions, the learner will be able to describe the elements involved in inquiry discussions and reflect on why each is an important piece in the process. (Unit 3)
  • The learner will be able to use the information and tools to prepare for, participate in, and reflect on an inquiry dialogue, taking on various roles. (Unit 3)
  • The learner will be able to select texts and develop questions for inquiry discussions. (Unit 4)
  • After being provided with criteria for and examples of effective inquiry questions, the learner will be able to compare examples and non-examples, differentiate between the two, and explain their conclusions. (Unit 4)
  • The learner will apply the concepts and criteria to develop their own discussion topics and create related activities in their specific discipline. (Unit 4)

Course Units

This mini-course includes the following units. Click the title of a unit to go to its page.

Note: Unit 2 and Unit 3 can be taken is whichever order makes sense to you. Because argumentation is a key element in inquiry dialogue, that comes second. However, if you would like to know more about the discussions first, you can go to Unit 3 before Unit 2. You should be sure to do both units prior to doing the activity at the end of Unit 3.
Unit 1: The What & the Why of Inquiry Dialogue
  • Guiding questions: What are my current attitudes toward or practices during classroom discussions? What is an inquiry dialogue? Why should we use them? What are some challenges we might face?
Unit 2: Arguments-- What They Are and How To Facilitate
  • Guiding questions: What makes an argument effective? How can we support students in developing effective arguments in their discussions?
Unit 3: The Elements of a Discussion
  • Guiding questions: What are the elements of an inquiry discussion, and why is each one important? What roles do the teacher and students play?
Unit 4: Discussion Planning
  • Guiding questions: How do I select texts for an inquiry discussion? What makes a good question for discussion and how do you develop them? How do I plan an Inquiry Discussion?

Extended Resources

Basic Structure of Argument. (n.d.). [Graphic]. Https://Rampages.Us/Cnjacksonfall15univ112/Basic-Structure-of-Argument/.

Chen, B., & Hong, H. Y. (2016). Schools as Knowledge-Building Organizations: Thirty Years of Design Research. Educational Psychologist, 51(2), 266–288.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Powerful learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Edutopia. (2018, November 16). Encouraging Academic Conversations With Talk Moves [Video]. YouTube.

Everett Public Schools. (n.d.). 21st Century Skills [Infographic]. Https://Www.Everettsd.Org/Page/25540.

KB Starter’s Resource Kit. (n.d.). Knowledge Building Community Singapore.

King Middle School, Portland, ME & Edutopia. (2009). Talk Moves [PDF Document]. Edutopia.

Larson, M. B., & Lockee, B. B. (2019). Streamlined ID: A practical guide to instructional design (2nd ed.). Routledge.

McGraw Hill PreK-12. (2014, June 23). Better collaborative conversations: On teaching with Dr. Doug Fisher [Video]. YouTube.

Olathe Public Schools, Beers, K., & Probst, R. (n.d.). Notice & note [PDF Document].

ReadWriteThink. (n.d.). What Is the Difference Between Persuasive and Argumentative Writing? [Chart]. ReadWriteThink.

Reznitskaya, A., & Glina, M. (2013). Comparing Student Experiences with Story Discussions in Dialogic Versus Traditional Settings. The Journal of Educational Research, 106(1), 49–63.

Reznitskaya, A., Wilkinson, I. A. G., & Snow, C. E. (2017). The Most Reasonable Answer: Helping Students Build Better Arguments Together (Annotated ed.). Harvard Education Press.

SAPEREP4C. (n.d.). 27 questions for facilitating philosophical dialogue [PDF Document]. Searchable Library of P4C Resources.

Smith, R. (2012, September 3). Ovatniah. Scholastic Scope, 26–31.

Snap Language. (2016, June 23). Analyzing the argument - part 1 of 2 [Video]. YouTube.

Staff, T. (2022, January 19). 26 Sentence Stems For Higher-Level Conversation In The Classroom. TeachThought. Retrieved June 5, 2022, from

The Hunt Institute. (2011, August 19). Speaking and Listening: The Key Role of Evidence [Video]. YouTube.

The Learning Accelerator. (2021, June 10). Discussion Sentence Stems. Resources & Guidance from The Learning Accelerator. Retrieved June 5, 2022, from

Whitfield, D. (n.d.). Establishing A Great Books Curriculum - Choosing a Teaching Approach - Teaching Through Shared Inquiry. National Great Books. Retrieved January 5, 2022, from

Wilkinson, I. A. G., Reznitskaya, A., Bourdage, K., Oyler, J., Glina, M., Drewry, R., Kim, M. Y., & Nelson, K. (2016). Toward a more dialogic pedagogy: changing teachers’ beliefs and practices through professional development in language arts classrooms. Language and Education, 31(1), 65–82.