Reading as Shared Exploration

Dr. Natalie Saaris
April 5, 2016

When most of us think of reading, we imagine a solitary person thumbing a book in a quiet room. When we think of a student reading an assignment for class, this image does not change: the student is still alone, preferably sitting at a desk and limiting distractions. Discussion is something that only happens after the lonely work of reading is completed.

This paradigm creates a dichotomy between the isolated act of reading and the social experience of discussion. But for many students, reading only becomes enjoyable once they are able to share their ideas and listen to others’, which means that reading itself is a chore whose reward is delayed until the next class conversation.

With paper-based instruction, reading and discussion are necessarily separate--there is no way to embed a live conversation within the document. But technology allows us to bring collaboration inside the text and creates opportunities to enrich reading through social interaction. Let’s look at a few of the ways that collaborating inside the text enhances reading for students and teachers.

Discussion Makes Reading More Enjoyable

We are social creatures who enjoy sharing our thoughts, whether it be through our social media feeds or gatherings at the water cooler. Unsurprisingly, our surveys of students consistently show that students find discussion to be the most enjoyable part of reading for class. This is their opportunity to make their classwork meaningful by expressing their point of view, asking questions, and finding out what their classmates are thinking.

When we delay discussion around student reading, we divorce this pleasurable conversation from the actual act of reading. We also make the reading less meaningful for the student, because the rich conversation that illuminates ideas and creates connections between concepts only comes after the reading has been completed.

Technology enables us to integrate the discussion directly into the text and turn reading into a dynamic, social activity. Students who enjoy sharing their thoughts with the class can do so directly in the text as the ideas emerge; this makes the actual process of reading more enjoyable because students look forward to collaborating as they read. Students who dive into the text first can look forward to discovering ideas and pointing them out to their teacher and classmates. Those who arrive later enjoy seeing what their classmates thought about the text and reading and responding to others’ comments.

Students who are reluctant to participate in traditional class discussion--whether because they need more time to collect their thoughts, are less vocal, or struggle with English--appreciate sharing their ideas in a written format and having an opportunity to join the conversation. Teachers and students will be surprised by what some of their quieter classmates can contribute to the discussion.

Finally, starting the discussion as students read creates even more excitement about the next in-class discussion. Let’s say that the teacher sees the following discussion thread in the text of The Declaration of Independence:

A discussion thread between students and a teacher
One way a teacher can draw on a discussion thread to effectively engage students

At least three students are interested in this part of the text and have insights into why the colonists felt it was their duty to overthrow the British government. The students clearly want to talk about this portion of the text, and a teacher who draws on this thread to generate discussion in class will find that students are excited to jump into an idea that they’ve already been thinking about. Pointing out this thread in class will also show students that their ideas can drive the discussion, essentially validating their importance to the shared goal of interpreting a text. This is a much more effective way of engaging students than starting from a topic that they may have little interest in.

Students Produce Higher Quality Work When They Are Accountable to their Teachers and Peers

In paper-based classes, holding students accountable for their reading can be a struggle. Teachers will distribute comprehension questions or quiz students to check that they’ve done their reading. Some students will try to circumvent the teacher’s efforts by reading online study guides rather than the text itself. Some will read only to answer the comprehension questions and see little interest in the ideas that don’t appear on their worksheet.

Even well-intentioned students who are committed to doing their reading assignment struggle to know how deeply they should be reading. How can a teacher convey to students what high-quality reading looks like? How can the teacher demonstrate the level of analysis that he or she wants students to engage in as they read?

Turning reading into a collaborative activity solves this problem. Making student responses and annotations visible holds students accountable for their reading and incentivizes them to produce creative, high-quality work. They know that their teachers and peers will see their responses, and they want to show that they have something insightful and interesting to say. For the student, seeing that an answer was marked correct by the teacher pales in comparison to the satisfaction of sparking an entire thread of responses from peers. Students want to be recognized by their classmates for their original thinking.

Collaborative learning has been shown to improve learning outcomes across subjects, grades, and student backgrounds. A meta-analysis of over 600 research studies found that students who work together cooperatively learn significantly more than individual learners. The evidence indicates that cooperative learning increases critical thinking, interest, and motivation.

“Several experimental studies have shown that groups outperform individuals on learning tasks and that individuals who work in groups do better on later individual assessments.”

— Brigid Barron and Linda Darling-Hammond

Most importantly, students who discuss as they read are no longer answering reading comprehension questions to convince the teacher that they’ve done their work; instead, they are contributing to the shared project of exploring a text. This is a qualitatively different activity than reading to pass the quiz, because students are no longer doing the work merely to please the teacher; they are engaging in the activity to further the group’s understanding of the text. The teacher can encourage this by asking questions that demand the students to think creatively and analytically, thereby giving them a voice rather than merely retrieving facts from the text. Students will see that their insights attract the attention of their classmates and teacher, or that their questions generate debate.

Conclusion: Use Collaboration to Make Reading More Meaningful

Collaboration is both a means of making learning more pleasurable for students and a way of encouraging higher-quality work. Integrating discussion into the reading process draws on students’ natural inclination to want to share their thoughts with others and their motivation to perform at a high level when their work is visible to others. When we bring these two aspects together through digital reading, we find that reading actually becomes more meaningful for students. It becomes clear to them why reading matters: it engages them in a conversation around ideas, helps connect them to a community of scholars (their teacher and classmates, in this case), and challenges them to think critically. This is ultimately what we as educators want from our students: to get something from the material we assign and to love learning.



Barron, Brigid and Linda Darling-Hammond, "Powerful Learning: Studies Show Deep Understanding Derives from Collaborative Methods."


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