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Recipes for Effective Literacy Instruction

Socratic Seminars



“Socratic Seminars” train students in how to conduct intelligent conversations—how to use effective habits of discussion and how to explain their ideas, supporting them with evidence.  Different educators have different ways of conducting Socratic Seminars.  In this approach, four students sit in the middle of the room, circled by the rest of the class.  Everyone in the class has read the same text (story, article, chapter, editorial...) or undergone the same experience (e.g., field trip or science lab); these four are responsible for discussing a given set of questions about it.  At the same time, four others in the outside circle are selected to observe the discussants and give feedback on their performance.  Everyone else in the class takes guided notes on the discussion.  The teacher uses a detailed rubric to score each of the discussants.  All of the needed materials (except, of course, for the texts of your choosing) are provided in the Download Zone.  Also, consider adapting the questions from the FREE Book Talk Project for Class Novel for use in these discussions.


•       Make a big deal about how important Socratic Seminars are for the skills they teach.  College students participate in seminars, and this practice—both the discussions and the note-taking (a skill college students MUST HAVE but many struggle with)—will help them in the future.

•       Don’t rush into the discussions without establishing your expectations for each role.  Explain the logistics fully and patiently.  Take as much time as you need to clarify terms on the rubric, observation checklist, and guided notes organizer.  Describe what a solid performance looks (and, of course, sounds) like, and be sure to emphasize that this is a group DISCUSSION, not just four people delivering monologues.  How they respond to one another will affect their grade.  Remind them to use strong vocabulary and academic language (or “accountable talk” or “habits of discussion,” or whatever you call it), and point to any helpful posters for reference.  Also, stress the importance of proper volume.

•       Customize the discussion questions and guided notes organizers as needed, but the rubric and observation checklist can stay the same.  It is generally best if different groups do not discuss exactly the same material (because the discussions can become repetitious and boring), but if they must, they should address it from different angles.  For example, if you want five groups to discuss a novel, give each group a different chapter or set of questions to tackle.

•       Make sure note-takers are clear about what good notes look like. They did not emerge from the womb knowing how to take notes.  Show them models.  Teach them shortcuts and common abbreviations.

•       The observers’ job is to provide positive feedback.  At least initially, it’s best to limit observers’ comments in the post-Seminar debrief discussion to “what the person I observed did WELL.”  After each participant has received some positive strokes, you can offer “things to work on for next time.”  Later on, after you’ve trained students in effective CONSTRUCTIVE feedback, then you can encourage that form of response.

•       To ease students’ nerves the first time around, make the first time a “dry run” for credit and feedback, not a major grade.  While some students relish having an audience, others would rather flee the country.  To accustom them to this potentially unsettling new ground, you might want to start with shorter sessions (say, six minutes) and questions on familiar topics—for example, how they feel about various holidays or which movies they like the best.  You might also use this opportunity to prompt personal reflection, such as with the following questions: 1) What are your high school and college plans? 2) What do you think your biggest challenges will be? 3) How do you expect to deal with these challenges?  Once they’ve gained their footing, you can shift their attention to more academic topics and texts.  The bottom line is this: If you can make everyone as comfortable as possible when launching this challenging task, it could become an invaluable tool in your classroom.  Indeed, in one class where I coached the co-teachers, their students began to REQUEST Socratic Seminars as a way to process what they were learning.

WANT TO SEE A SOCRATIC SEMINAR IN ACTION?  I am thrilled and grateful to report that Mr. Jamison Fort, who teaches 6th-grade Social Studies at Maxson Middle School in Plainfield, NJ, videotaped his students conducting a Socratic Seminar and the subsequent debrief.  What I particularly like about these examples is that Jamison took my approach and MADE IT BETTER.  In the box that follows, see the clips and his explanation.  The tools he used are FREE DOWNLOADS below.  Many thanks to Jamison and his students for sharing their fine work!!!

Check out the Socratic Seminar DISCUSSION (click here) and DEBRIEF (click here).


TOPIC: “Should parents burn their children’s textbooks?”

TEXTS DISCUSSED: Textbook burning in Venezuela (https://newsela.com/articles/textbooks-venezuela/id/6852/) and Venezuela’s New Textbooks Glorify Hugo Chavez (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NzvpoYwap4)


TEACHER: Mr. Jamison Fort, Plainfield Public Schools (Maxson Middle School), Teacher of 6th grade Social Studies


STUDENTS IN THE MIDDLE: Karen Vides, Davie McClearie, Tajian Langford, Bryan Williams  


ALLOTTED TIME FOR DISCUSSION: The center group was given 4 minutes for their discussion.


ALLOTTED TIME FOR DEBRIEF: The observers in the outer circle were given about three minutes to offer feedback on the discussion and individual students' performance.


AUDIENCE ROLE: Audience members listen to the discussion and use a score sheet to keep track of the points made and supported with textual evidence (a point made without evidence did not count).


INSTRUCTIONAL CONTEXT (explained by Mr. Jamison Fort): Students had previously practiced conducting Socratic Seminars twice prior to this Seminar. The first topic of discussion was “Should college be free?” Then we discussed who the best potential candidate for the 2016 presidential election would be. What I realized in those sessions were two things, one, the more dominant students were more focused on getting their thoughts heard than having a balanced conversation; even after receiving feedback and making improvements, the conversation were still uneven. Two, students spent a lot of time discussing their opinions.  So I adjusted the expectations of the Seminar. I turned it into a competition where the students talking were now on teams.  Each student could only gain four points, and those points were only gained when a student made a statement and clearly supported it with evidence from the texts. This motivated them to have a balanced evidence-based discussion. These activities were done as a part of PARCC test preparation.


TOOLS (also available below):

Socratic Seminar Team Scoring Sheet

Various Socratic Seminar Tools

***RECOMMENDED READING: Jeff Zwiers, the author of BUILDING ACADEMIC LANGUAGE, has put many helpful resources on his Website.  Check out the "Academic Language Posters" for anchor chart ideas.  Also, check out this FREE Habits of Discussion 1-pager, which consolidates useful academic discussion expressions for easy reference (Thanks to Allison Miller for putting this together!).

***MORE ON SOCRATIC QUESTIONS:  The Changing Minds Website provides examples of the six types of questions that Socrates was known to ask.  Here's a set of sample questions:FREE TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD Socratic Seminar Questions (Thanks to Jamie Sterlacci for this contribution!)

***RELATED WORK: For how to run mock trials (or mini-mock trials), check out Teaching Civics.

NOTE: In order to conduct effective discussions about texts, students must read and analyze texts effectively.  Check out the READING section for more information on how to teach students how to annotate and analyze texts.

Here are the FREE DOWNLOADS that will help you run Socratic Seminars (You do not have to log in to access these files!):


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