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Interpretive Discussion: Engaging Students in Text-Based Conversations

reviewed by Leilya Pitre - October 03, 2014

coverTitle: Interpretive Discussion: Engaging Students in Text-Based Conversations
Author(s): Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612506445, Pages: 240, Year: 2014
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As teachers immerse students in meaningful classroom activities, engaging in interpretive discussion can be a useful tool to promote critical thinking and foster the analytical skills required by Common Core Standards or other state adopted standards. In Interpretive Discussion: Engaging Students in Text-Based Conversations, Haroutunian-Gordon introduces the concept and provides detailed explanations of how to prepare, lead, and reflect on such a discussion. The book’s audience is wide, primarily intended for teachers of all grade levels and school subjects—English Language Arts, math, natural history, social studies, and science. However, teachers in K-12 schools are not the only ones who can benefit from the textbook: instructional coaches, literacy specialists, teacher educators, and curriculum developers will find the book educative and sufficiently explicit for professional development seminars and workshops.

As the author argues, this book “is meant to be a resource—a tool that can help readers develop the knowledge, skills, values, and habits of mind that are required for the successful use of interpretive discussion as a pedagogical orientation” (p. 3). The book is a product of the author’s multiple research studies on the interpretive discussion concept. Such a thoughtful presentation provides thorough examples and close analysis of all the phases of interpretive discussion, thus offering educators a step-by-step protocol for preparing, leading, and reflecting on text discussions. Readers can use the guidelines to understand how to choose the right text for discussion, develop a basic question with a subset/cluster of additional follow-up questions, and find the point of ambiguity within the text.

Haroutunian-Gordon claims that the main goal of interpretive discussion is to come to a shared point of doubt about the meaning of the text under consideration. Walking readers through the phases of interpretive discussion, she demonstrates the complexities of teachers’ work in preparing for and leading interpretive discussions. Because every discussion is unique, and experiences in connection with “preparing for, participating in, and leading these discussions are always novel” (p. 3), there is no out-of-the-box recipe or procedure for success. However, each part of the book presents a series of in-depth illustrations to assist in developing the skills of a discussion leader. Haroutunian-Gordon explicitly models her thought processes while developing discussion questions, and then carefully takes us through three different discussions from different groups of students and various text genres—a poem, an excerpt from a non-fiction text, and a Nobel Prize Laureate’s speech. In addition, Haroutunian-Gordon provides several appendices that deliver additional resources and explain how she prepared for the discussions of the three texts exemplified in this book.

There are numerous lessons to be learned from this book, and I will highlight just a few of them. The first lesson lies in choosing a text. Haroutunian-Gordon insists that it is the discussion leader’s assignment to find an appropriate text for discussion. I would suggest that once students have some experience with interpretive discussions, they could propose a text to discuss later in the school year; obviously, the students’ ideas should be evaluated with the teacher. The foremost key to effective discussion is to find a text (book, painting, film, musical piece, etc.) that has some ambiguity—something that the students and the teacher don’t quite understand.

This brings us to the second point: it is critical to select a text with “sufficient ambiguity to sustain conversation about its meaning” for at least 45 minutes (p. 13), which Haroutunian-Gordon indicates is the most appropriate timeframe for these kinds of discussions. The aim is to bring all the participants to “a shared point of doubt” which requires searching for meaning within the text; therefore, the leader should develop questions that drive discussion. The questions should not have direct answers, but rather they should allow for multiple interpretations of the meaning of the text.

The third lesson relates to discussion leaders themselves. First, they must be flexible when leading discussions: regardless of how well discussion leaders are prepared, an interpretive discussion is spontaneous. While leaders can redirect a discussion, its progression depends on participants’ prior skills, experiences, and interests. Haroutunian-Gordon explains the pattern that discussion leaders typically follow: (a) posing the basic question; (b) directing the question to a particular participant; (c) bringing attention to a specific place in text; and (d) clarifying the participant’s argument, by paraphrasing what was said or by asking follow-up questions. Employing this strategy allows a leader to keep the conversation moving, and progress towards resolving the question, even when the discussion itself is unique.

Finally, Haroutunian-Gordon notes that discussion leading is an iterative process—one that requires a reflection phase. Discussion leaders should evaluate and analyze the flow of discussion in order to recognize the situations, obstacles, and outcomes that result from participants’ actions. The reflection phase also includes thoughts about the content of the conversation and progression towards “resolution of that shared point of doubt” (p. 23). The reflection phase is a vital part of an interpretive discussion.

In conclusion, Interpretive Discussion: Engaging Students in Text-Based Conversations is a practical resource textbook that finds readers among K-12 schoolteachers, instructional coaches, and instructional supervisors. This book serves as a tool to help teachers encourage critical thinking, analytic and argumentative skills, and interpretative skills—all of which are needed to meet the rigorous requirements of the Common Core Standards, as well as prepare students for college and active citizenship in democratic society. Haroutunian-Gordon’s book provides a framework for professional development, learning opportunities for students, and exciting discoveries for anyone engaged in interpretive discussion practices.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 03, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17702, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 7:05:42 AM

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About the Author
  • Leilya Pitre
    Louisiana State University
    E-mail Author
    LEILYA PITRE taught English as a foreign language in the Ukraine and English Language Arts in the U.S. She has recently earned her Ph. D. in Curriculum and Instruction with focus on English education from Louisiana State University. Her research interests are centered around preparation of secondary English teachers, especially early field experiences, young adult literature, and multicultural literature. Recent projects include her dissertation, An Examination of Secondary English Pre-Service Teachers’ Perceptions of Field Experiences: Shaping the Understanding of Teaching and Its Challenges Before Student Teaching, and a multiple case study, From Field Experiences to Student Teaching: A Leap of Faith or Continuous Growth? Recent publications include: Emiraliyeva-Pitre, L. (2012). I am (not) the walrus by Ed Briant. Book review. The ALAN Review, 40(1), A4.; Bickmore, S. & Emiraliyeva-Pitre, L. (2013). Teaching diverse young adult literature in harmony with the Common Core State Standards: Is it still just about the characters, the plot, the setting? Signal Journal, 36(1).; Espinosa-Dulanto, M., Humpal, D., Pitre, L, & Smollen Santana, J. (Eds.), (2013). Liminal spaces and call for praxis(ing). A volume in curriculum and pedagogy. Contributing editor. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.; Bickmore, S., & Pitre, L. (2014). Moving from a novice to an expert reader/ teacher of young adult literature. A manuscript has been accepted by Florida English Journal (estimated publication – fall, 2014).; and Pitre, L. (Ed.). In Pitre, L. R., Jr. Windows into yesteryears. (2014). Ingram Content Group.
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