If you want your students to read and understand a lot of books, start a book discussion group with other homeschool students. In fact, if you yourself want to ensure you read a lot of books and understand them, you should start a book discussion group for yourself and your friends. The deadlines will help drive the reading, and the discussion will drive comprehension.
There are lots of online resources about how to run a book discussion group, but I don’t find many that tell you how to run the book discussion itself. There is no better method for having a lively book discussion—and one that actually encourages “active reading” —than the Great Books Shared Inquiry method.
I was stuck in the ask-a-factual-question-about-the-book-and-get-a-factual-answer method of talking about books with my kids and with a reading class I taught. Then I attended a Great Books Shared Inquiry seminar, and it opened my eyes to the exhilarating possibilities of getting kids excited about discussing books.
I encourage homeschoolers to shake off the constraints that standard classrooms impose on learning and to embrace the freedom that homeschooling can bring. When you don’t have to generate a grade for every activity, a book discussion becomes a great vehicle for encouraging reading and engagement with ideas.
The most important key to a good book discussion that Shared Inquiry emphasizes is this: Ask a question that has no single right answer. That is, ask a question that can be answered in multiple ways using supporting evidence from the book. In the seminar I attended, the group read the story “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and the leader asked the question: Was Jack’s success due to luck or skill? You wouldn’t believe how lively and passionate the ensuing discussion was.
The Shared Inquiry Method divides questions into three groups:
Factual Questions Are Boring
Factual questions are just that: Who were Jack’s parents? What was the name of the cow? These do not engender discussion, but they are ubiquitous in literature classes—mainly as way to test if students read the book. If you want students to read the book, don’t bore them to tears with questions that have obvious answers. Instead require that only those who completed the book can participate in the discussion. If you want students to enjoy the discussion, ask “interpretive” questions.
Interpretive Questions are Exciting
Interpretive questions are those that do not have a single right answer. The text of the story indicates the answer but in ways that may be ambiguous, where some may read the answer one way and others another. Good interpretive questions can be generated by asking those questions which puzzle you. For example, from the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story: Why did Jack go back to the giant’s house even after he had gotten wealthy from his first trip?
If you are leading a discussion of students, your job is to generate the questions and ask followup questions to keep the discussion going and to ensure everyone gets to participate. Answers have to be supported by evidence from the book.
For example, a student might answer, “Well the story says that Jack was “still not content” after his first visit. So maybe he thought going back would make him happy.”
And you might follow up, “Why do you think Jack was not content even with all his wealth?”
And so the discussion would continue. The best discussions are kept in this interpretive area and those are the ones nearly ever reading level can participate in, as you can see from the discussion that could be generated by a children’s fairy tale.
I suppose there is another type of question that Shared Inquiry terms “speculative questions.” These are questions that have no answers from the story itself. A question like “Do you think Jack would get married and have kids?” or “What would have happened if Jack had not gotten the beans.” These are outside the scope of the story, don’t help readers to understand the story, and should be avoided.
Save Evaluative Questions for Last
Another type of question that you should not be too eager to ask in a book discussion with students are “Evaluative Questions.” These are questions that ask if you agree with the point the author was trying to make. For example, “Do you think a person has to take risks like Jack did in order to grow up and become an adult.” These questions can be asked but only after the readers have really understood the motivations and issues addressed in the story. It is better to stay on interpretive questions and not ask evaluative ones rather than ask evaluative ones too early.
Finding Good Interpretive Questions
Shared Inquiry asks readers to read the selection twice. The Great Books Foundation offers numerous collections of short stories and excerpts that allow this to be done in a classroom setting. If kids are reading full-length novels, this will be harder to accomplish (maybe impossible). Shared Inquiry describes the first reading as the one to get the gist of the story and to watch for things that interest or puzzle you. The second reading, after you know the outcome, allows you to look for connections and answer some of the questions you may have asked in your first reading.
Shared Inquiry encourages the reader to take notes and to underline such things as “striking or unusual use of language” and “prominent details.” Character motivations should be noted as well as “words or phrases with multiple interpretations.”
As you think about the work, Shared Inquiry gives you some guidelines for formulating good interpretive questions:
- Ask questions for which you have genuine doubt as to the answer.
- Ask questions that interest you.
- Ask questions that send you to the story for answers.
One last thing, as the leader, you ask the questions but you don’t offer answers. Let the kids do the work and don’t suck all the excitement out of the room by telling the kids the “best answer.”
These Shared Inquiry techniques can generate good book discussions among adults as well. You wouldn’t have to have a group leader that led the discussion; rather you could all come with the questions that puzzle you and let the discussion flow from there.
I would heartily encourage you to attend a Great Books seminar. They hold them around the country at various times. And check out their fabulous resources. As they tout in their materials, shared inquiry promotes reading comprehension, expands vocabulary, and enhances critical thinking. What great results are achieved through this fun and engaging approach.