Skip to contentContribute to ReadWriteThink / RSS / FAQs / Site Demonstrations / Contact Us / About Us



Lessons Plans

Our lesson plans are written and reviewed by educators using current research and the best instructional practices and are aligned to state and national standards. Choose from hundreds of topics and strategies.



Professional Development

Find the latest in professional publications, learn new techniques and strategies, and find out how you can connect with other literacy professionals.



HomeProfessional DevelopmentStrategy Guides

Strategy Guide

Conducting Inner-Outer Circle Discussions

E-mail / Share / Print This Page / Print All Materials (Note: Handouts must be printed separately)


Conducting Inner-Outer Circle Discussions

Grades 6 – 12

Scott Filkins

Scott Filkins

Champaign, Illinois


National Council of Teachers of English

Strategy Guide Series Evidence-based Discussions

See All Strategy Guides in this series 


Research Basis

Strategy in Practice

Related Resources

To give more students a chance to talk, and to provide a built-in source of peer feedback on discussion skills/behaviors, the Inner Circle-Outer Circle strategy frames half the class as discussion participants and the other half as focused listeners.

Research Basis


Although discussing texts is considered a foundation of secondary English classes, Barker (2015) notes that discussion, particularly discussion in which students actively elaborate on each others’ ideas rather than merely responding to the teachers’ questions, is relatively rare. She cites key factors in supporting students’ development as participants in elaborative discussions as having practice opportunities, explicit norms and examples, and concrete identification of discussion moves. This strategy guide for inner/outer circle discussion, with its purposeful inclusion of only half the class as a time, is designed around these principles.


Strategy in Practice

back to top

  • On the day before a full class discussion of a text, remind students of the qualities of effective open-ended questions. Such questions can
    • identify confusion and ask for clarification (e.g., “I wasn’t sure about ___. What do people think this means?”)
    • offer an interpretation (e.g. “I think ___ because ___. What do you think?”)
    • ask for interpretation, comparison, or evaluation (e.g. “What did you think the author means when ___?” or “How is ___ different from ___”?)

  • Using this language as a guide, ask students to have questions about the text ready for the discussion.

  • On the day of the Inner-Outer Circle discussion, ask all students to get out their questions and divide the room into an inner circle and an outer circle. Leave one empty seat in the inner circle for an outer circle student to join temporarily.

  • Remind students in the inner circle of key discussion strategies and their responsibility for using them to keep the conversation going:
    • affirmation: “I appreciated ___’s comment because ____.”
    • extension: “Another piece of evidence for ___’s interpretation is ___.” “___’s comment made me think about ___.”
    • disagreement: “I looked at ___ a different way because ____.”
    • eliciting: “Who has other ideas about ___?”
    • closing/re-launching: “Have we finished this question? Who would like to ask another?”

  • Remind outer circle students of their responsibility: to take notes on the main topics/content/themes of the discussion and to provide feedback on the dynamics of the discussion to the inner circle participants.

  • When appropriate, a student from the outer circle may take the empty seat in the inner circle to participate briefly, but he or she should return to the outer circle when his or her contribution is finished.

  • The teacher stays in the outer circle, using the empty seat in the inner circle as appropriate to help guide the conversation if necessary.

  • Leave time at the end of class to debrief on the discussion, asking the outer circle to share their observations about what was discussed as well as the dynamics of the discussion. Encourage all students to write a reflection on what they learned about the content and what they noticed about the dynamics of the discussion. Each student should set speaking and listening goals for the next discussion. Repeat the next discussion with a new arrangement of inner-outer circle participants.

Related Resources

back to top


Grades   9 – 12  |  Lesson Plan  |  Standard Lesson

The Pros and Cons of Discussion

Students use a Discussion Web to engage in meaningful discussion of the question, "Are people equal?"


Grades   6 – 8  |  Lesson Plan  |  Standard Lesson

Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges: Critical Discussion of Social Issues

Through a series of picture book read-alouds, students engage in critical discussion of complex issues of race, class, and gender.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Lesson Plan  |  Unit

Using Student-Centered Comprehension Strategies with Elie Wiesel's Night

Working in small groups, students read and discuss Elie Wiesel's memoir Night and then take turns assuming the "teacher" role, as the class works with four different comprehension strategies.