Maximizing Reading Group Discussion – 5 Steps to Get Started

Two weeks ago, (maybe because it was spring break and I was out of town), I went on a spate of book-buying that could not be stopped, even by the threat of excess baggage fees at the airport. I won’t list the entire inventory of my bounty here, but I’ll at least share the details about two pleasure reads that I’ve been eying for a while: Rebecca Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (thankfully for my budget, out in paperback) and Sara Gruen‘s Water For Elephants. Those who know me probably can surmise why I’m drawn to Skloot and Gruen’s  books (an interest in the medical humanities, on the one hand, and anything early-twentieth century Americana, on the other).

On the surface, the two books couldn’t be more different, but both contain questions for book discussion groups [1], [2]. What an awesome development. It’s great to see publishers (authors? agents? all of the above?) actively promoting thoughtful consumption of the printed word! So, that got me thinking:  formulating a discussion program–coming up with a set of accessible, conversation-starting questions about a text’s major themes, issues, characters, etc.–is something that I do (and I’d like to think do well) as a college-level literature  instructor. Yet, creating a focused discussion program that encourages dialogue isn’t an easy task.  It takes forethought and a little know-how. So, what if you’re interested in organizing a group discussion about a book with no attached reading guide?

Sure, these days, you can turn to google, yahoo, or bing to find all sorts of discussion prompts for the book in question.  But what if someone showed you how such questions were created?  Then, you could develop a discussion program that speaks  to your group’s interests, time constraints, and experience level.  After the jump, I’ve done just that.  Drawing from seven years of experience teaching literature, cultural studies, and composition at the university level, I’ve developed 10 ways to maximize group discussion and encourage lively, respectful dialogue among participants. This post offers in 5 steps in getting started.

[1] The The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks with discussion guide: ISBN# 9781400052189.
[2] Water for Elephants with discussion guide: ISBN# 9781565125605 .

Formulating a Discussion Agenda

1. Know the Difference Between a Discussion “Topic” and a Discussion “Question.”

Topics are big: they are broad ideas that emerge in the text; literary scholars often refer to these issues as “themes.” Questions derive from topics; they are focused points of entry into discussion and they lead participants on a progressive exploration of the topic.  Be wary of making discussion topics discussion questions, as overly-broad questions often “shut down” dialogue because participants don’t know where to begin their response: with too many doors open, entering the discussion actually becomes more difficult.  What’s more, because an overly broad question provides numerous entry points for discussion, it can produce a scattered, as opposed to focused, conversation.

Let’s look at some examples of topics and questions using the HBO television series, The Sopranos, as a test-case.  (So, yes, my tips can be use to the discuss a variety of media, including films, photographs, artwork, etc.)  For those unfamiliar with The Sopranos, the  show focuses on the two familial allegiances of Tony Soprano–his nuclear family living somewhat happily and carefree in suburban New Jersey and his crime family, the New Jersey mob.  Tony’s in charge of both–or so it seems.  Major themes or discussion topics related to the series include “alternative definitions of ‘family'” or “stereotypes of New Jersey.”  A discussion question asking “how does The Sopranos promote stereotypes” is too broad–it is a discussion topic masquerading as a question.  A narrower, more appropriate question related to the show’s promotion of stereotypes is “How does the opening sequence of The Sopranos promote stereotypes about New Jersey’s physical appearance?”

2. Consider Time Constraints

How much time do you have?  The length of the meeting will determine how many topics you can discuss as well as how intently these subjects can be examined.  For a meeting lasting about 30 minutes, I recommend selecting 1-2 topics for discussion.  For 45 minutes to an hour, select 2.  Got an hour?  Select 2-3 topics.

3. Have Back Up

Always have an extra topic for discussion in case things don’t go as planned (and that likely will happen, at least to a minor degree, and it’ll be okay).  For instance, perhaps your group breezes through an analysis of a complex topic, and suddenly you’re faced with a lot of “extra time.”  Having a spare topic (as well as some related questions) in your back pocket will keep the meeting productive, as you’ll have new territory to explore.  It’s important to keep in mind, though, that your group might not get to this extra discussion point, so plan accordingly by choosing a topic you won’t mind skipping  (or only briefly exploring) if need be.

4. Distinguish Between First- and Second-Order Questions

Depending on your audience’s familiarity with the subject matter or their level of expertise, you might begin discussion with questions that establish a uniform understanding of the book’s basic details or “facts.”  Such queries are “first -order” questions. Beginning discussion with a few well-chosen, first-order questions is a must if your audience has little familiarity with the subject matter.  A first-order question asks what rather than why.  What does Tony talk about when he visits Dr. Melfi, his psychologist, and when does she find out about his association with the mob?  What are some of Carmela Soprano’s chief character traits before she meets Furio, Tony’s Italian-born enforcer?

Asking first-order questions ensures that everyone in the audience is operating with the same understanding of the text’s basic details.  Once this foundation has been established, second-order questions can be asked about this material.  These questions ask why (either explicitly or implicitly) rather than what, and therefore, they prompt audience members to interpret the information generated from the first-order questions.  Why is Dr. Melfi both drawn to and repulsed by Tony during season 1 of the series?  If Furio never outwardly shows romantic interest in Carmela, why does he become an object of her attention?

Note that first-order questions can contain any interrogative word (what, why, how, etc.), and the same holds true for  second-order questions.  The main difference between these queries  is that first-order questions ask for more information–they elicit facts and details–whereas second-order questions prompt interpretation–dialogue about the meaning or significance of a text’s details. 

5. Brainstorm, Sequence, and Thin

Once you’ve identified the discussion topics/themes you’d like to discuss, brainstorm a series of questions related to each theme.  Include both first-order questions and second-order questions in your list.  Next, arrange  the topics in a logical order.  Which broad idea do you want to discuss first?  Second?  Last?  Now, turn your attention to the list of questions you brainstormed for each topic.  Sequence these queries in a logical order, as well: question 1 should prepare the audience to discuss question 2, and so on.  Don’t forget that first-order questions about a particular element of the book should come before second-order questions about that same element (e.g., “What does Dr. Melfi know about Tony’s mafia activities?” and  “Why is she both repulsed and intrigued by this information?” belong in this order).  Finally, review the questions for each topic, and eliminate all but the most promising prompts.  The axiom, “less is more,” indeed applies in this situation.


Think of these rules as suggestions–not  rigid dogma.  I believe that productive, enjoyable discussions have some kind of structure or framework.  But, like all things human-oriented, discussion can go off-track.  So, be flexible.  Temporarily abandon your plan if the situation requires you to do so or if the audience would benefit  from such a move.  However, also think about how you might eventually reunite the group with the original agenda at an appropriate time.

Want more information?

Read my follow-up post on 5 tips for leading and managing a reading group discussion.  Also check out 5 bonus tips for concluding your book group’s meeting.

Have some tips of your own for starting group discussion, particularly about a book or media item? Leave a comment below!

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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