Implementing discussion-based pedagogy in secondary English novel studies

The study of classic novels is a staple in many secondary English classrooms across the country. In this reader submission, English and History teacher Alec Santucci shares how he has approached including discussion throughout the learning of the classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, with his year 11 students – sharing strategies that have proved effective in his own classroom for enhancing student engagement.

Discussion-based pedagogies are ‘dialogue-based approaches to teaching and learning that are intended to promote interactive and participatory classroom environments,’ (Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, n.d). A discussion-based approach is an ‘active learning technique’ which requires students to be ‘co-constructors’ of their learning (Columbia Institute, n.d).

When we promote discussion-based approaches, students gain agency in the direction of their learning within guided parameters. In discussion-based classrooms, teachers act as ‘facilitators’ who provide relevant guides to discussion, without overbearing input. This agency creates higher involvement in the learning process.

Discussion-based pedagogy is noted by Sibold et al. (2017) to ‘exist in multiple forms’ and can include ‘online discussion boards, mock trials, problem-based discussions, debate, structured controversy, deliberative discussions, book clubs’ and ‘others.’ Research conducted on discussion suggests multiple student benefits. One notable 2014 longitudinal study conducted by Fung and Howe analysed the implementation of increased collaborative group work in 2 Hong Kong high schools over the course of a year and found additional collaborative group work increased students critical thinking capabilities,. Other studies (Darby, 2007) demonstrate the capacity of discussion-based pedagogies to develop critical and creative thinking skills, problem solving, communication and the development of learner autonomy and responsibility.

Despite noted benefits such as increased word knowledge, inference identification, critical thinking and reading comprehension, increased workload requirements, resourcing and unit time constraints may be reasons why some secondary schools are minimising the uptake of novel studies in their enacted curriculum. Against a backdrop of concerning reading literacy attainment (ACARA, 2023), class novel studies are one method of getting young Australians to read regularly, which is an important element of building essential literacy skills.

A structure for discussion-based pedagogy in novel studies

How teachers approach a novel study will vary depending on their own, class and school context. However, common effective strategies exist when teaching a novel.

Some contemporary teacher-created resources indicate effective practices which suggest a deviation from traditional forms may lead to higher student engagement. Davis’s 2023 article, From Boring to Brilliant: How Novel Studies Revamped My Reading Lessons on her Differentiated Teaching website, provides an accessible lens to changing the traditional comprehension question format to a ‘trifold novel study’ methodology.

The article highlights the importance of prioritising the development of specific skills over broader recall and comprehension of plot. Davis encourages us to reflect on how we use comprehension questions in our classrooms and whether this practice generates the best outcomes for students in terms of specific learning and engagement. It poses queries about whether a questioning method encourages legitimate learning of themes and ideas or mere completion of questions within a time frame.

When combined with purposeful discussion-based pedagogy, novel studies can have significant benefits on student learning. The resource produced by Davis touches on experimentation involving different forms of discussion-based practices with novel studies.

A classroom example

In my own classes I blend traditional and discussion-based approaches to evaluate student engagement. Implemented with a year 11 English class currently studying Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, I employ a specific unit structure. The week’s lessons follows an accessible student routine, which is articulated below:

  • Students are to independently read 4 chapters of the novel. The chapters in To Kill a Mockingbird, although varied, are generally quite short. Four chapters provides an accessible medium of regular reading. It is wise to be cautious about overloading students, selecting a proportional amount of reading with both the class and individual contexts in mind. The number of chapters may be differentiated depending on the length of a text, individual student ability and school context.
  • Students are to complete the ‘even’ chapter comprehension questions for the weeks assigned reading (for example, chapters 2,4,6,8…). Students are assigned questions for every second chapter. I have found that this minimises cognitive load, increases comprehension and generates better ‘flow’ in the students reading, reducing the need to stop as frequently. The focus here is on comprehension, not merely on completing the questions, but understanding and analysing the text on a deeper basis.
  • Students are to engage in one whole class chapter discussion lesson (45 minutes) based on the comprehension prompts completed. After finishing the comprehension questions, one 45-minute lesson a week is dedicated to a whole class discussion. Using the assigned chapter questions as prompts for the discussion, students move their chairs into a circle shape in the middle of the classroom bringing their laptop, exercise book and novel to share responses. All students are encouraged to share but are not compelled to if uncomfortable.

The structure provides accommodations to different styles of learning (individual and collaborative) where students are able to individually apply their understanding in the comprehension questions and collaboratively discuss in class. The structure intentionally follows a routine, which allows students to anticipate classroom procedures and the types of learning undertaken.

Overcoming barriers to discussion

There are observable benefits to encouraging discussion-based approaches with novel studies. Students have the opportunity to enter a dialogue, express thinking, share ideas and discuss plot progressions and the techniques authors use.

The collaborative sharing of these ideas then allows students to explore different perspectives in a text analysis which may be different from their own. It elucidates ideas to a larger group. These ideas are peer-shared; not coming from a teacher in a top-down capacity but are shared on an equal basis. It also generates skills associated with both studying literature and discussion-based pedagogy such as critical thinking, learner autonomy and communication skills.

While I have explored the benefits of this methodology, there are also practical limitations which should be explored. The use of comprehension questions may not suit the specific requirements of a class or be too monotonous for some students. It is important to centre the focus of the questions on comprehension, analytical thinking or skill development (the use of the ‘trifold’ method proposed by Davis may be one effective alternative to this approach).

Similarly, it is important to note that not all students will feel comfortable enough to contribute to a class discussion. While it is positive to encourage all students to share, it is important to note the individual needs of each student and account for their respective social or cognitive needs.

A blanket rule like ‘everyone must share’, does not account for the individual needs of some students in the class. Neurodiverse students, for example, may require additional support or a scaffolded template to engage in a class discussion. One phrase that could be used is, ‘I encourage everyone to share at least once’. This sets a positive goal and is instructional in nature but allows room for variation for students that require it. Throughout the term or semester students will build up additional skills and confidence to contribute further to these discussions.

One major barrier to a discussion-based approach is teaching students to have open discussion about a text. Dialogue based approaches should avoid rote question and answer sessions, but should display meaningful conversation regarding the text.

One method of approaching this that I use is to engage students in a preparatory discussion seminar, where they learn to express their thinking with peers. Over time, the more students engage in this approach, their confidence should build in discussion-based classes. The idea is to acclimatise students to collaborative learning and encourage them to be able to share with their peers.

Novel studies provide rich opportunities for learning and schools may look to adapt some of the approaches discussed into their respective studies of literature. However, teachers should also be cognisant of limitations, making sure to differentiate and adapt to the individual needs and context of their respective classes.

Employing strategies such as the structure explored here may go some distance in raising class engagement, deepening understanding, and developing skills when teaching novels.

References and related reading

Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority. (2023). NAPLAN 2023: Commentary (pp. 3–10). Sydney, New South Wales: Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority.

Cain, K., & Oakhill, J. (2011). Matthew Effects in Young Readers: Reading Comprehension and Reading Experience Aid Vocabulary Development. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 44(5), 431-443.

Cassidy, C. (2023, August 23). One in 10 students are falling behind on literacy and numeracy, revamped Naplan finds. The Guardian. For a holistic discussion of the 2023 NAPLAN results, including literacy attainment, access this article published in the Guardian.

Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning. (n.d). Learning Through Discussion. Retrieved April 10, 2024, from

Darby, Michele. (2007). Debate: a teaching-learning strategy for developing competence in communication and critical thinking. Journal of dental hygiene: JDH / American Dental Hygienists' Association. 81 (4), 78.

Davis, R. (2023, October 22). From Boring to Brilliant: How Novel Studies Revamped My Reading Lessons. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from Davis’ article provides an accessible teacher lens to implementing non-traditional and skill-based approaches to teaching literature.

Fung, D., & Howe, C. (2014). Group work and the learning of critical thinking in the Hong Kong secondary liberal studies curriculum. Cambridge Journal of Education, 44(2), 245–270.

Sibold, W., Mueller, R., Lind, C., McCaffrey , G., & Ewashen, C. (2017). Enhancing Critical Thinking through Class Discussion: A Guide for Using Discussion Based Pedagogy. University of Calgary.

Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. (n.d). Enhancing Critical Thinking through Class Discussion: A Guide for using Discussion-Based Pedagogy. Retrieved April 10, 2024, from