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So, ya think you can lead a discussion, punk?



Having seen hundreds of trainee teachers ‘in performance’ I can say with some authority that the biggest difference between the obvious novice and the skilled pedagogue is the latter’s ability to manage space, time, and people. The former often have little or no sense of audience, they lack sensitivity as to how the message is being perceived or absorbed.


bored audience


 The value of utilizing such teaching skills extends beyond English classrooms through to seminars, tutorials, workshops, and discussion led by peers and colleagues. The real leader knows how to make an impact in order to educate, they don’t just transmit data (I wish some of the university lecturers I know took this to heart).

I’m not talking about gimmicky edutainment here but rather having a sensibility to attracting, and keeping, the attention of a small group in order to make a lasting point or impression, and, more to the point, having the chops required to pull this off.


 ‘The type of practical skill that EFL administrators love to see’

If our students are going to become professionals or specialists in some field there is a reasonable chance that at some point they will be asked to lead a seminar, formal discussion, or workshop (it’s particularly common in the medical community). Inculcating these skills in students thus can go a long way towards their professional development. It’s also the type of practical skill that EFL administrators love to see in a syllabus.


So, what qualities and features should we be considering when teaching these skills? Let’s approach this point-by-point.


  1. Choosing a suitable discussion topic

The primary question is ‘Who is the audience?’ Content should be pitched at the interests, and both English and field-expertise levels of the audience +1. It should also be pitched towards the interests of the audience. The audience should come away thinking that they were glad they attended. The audience/participants should come away being able to state what they had learned.


Warning 1: Students may well be tempted to choose a topic from an academic journal (ouch!), or at the opposite extreme, something common and superficial that everyone already knows.


Warning 2: Many students will think that leading a discussion equals a presentation. It doesn’t. Presentations are generally not interactive and are more formalized and predictable. Leading a discussion reduces these elements.


  1. The Opening

A good opening should engage the participants actively. A personalized approach is best with a small group (and in Japan asking specific people to respond is the best way to generate some interaction). For example, if the topic is ‘the consequences of oversleeping’ one can ask, “How long do you sleep on average?’ ‘If you oversleep, why do you do so?’ ‘On a scale of 1 to 5, how hard is it for you to get out of bed in the morning? Why?’. All are effective types of questions for generating both interest and a sense of involvement.


Warning: Student leaders will likely be tempted to open by saying ‘My topic is —‘, which is about as stimulating as a gubernatorial election. They are also likely to immediately hand out any associated papers, which means that all eyes peer down (as in the MO of your average Japanese business meeting) to read it, killing off any immediate impetus for initiate discussion.


  1. Gauging the participants

Finding out the degree of the participants’ knowledge on a topic is important for quickly deciding what to emphasize and/or what to omit from the planned discussion. Eliciting, from specific participants (and from all the participants), is the skill that they need to employ here – actively seeking participant input. If the audience seems quite knowledgeable on the topic you may have to engage them more deeply than you thought, if not, you might want to avoid that planned section dealing with the minutiae of the effects of the genetic code on sleep behaviours.

This connects with to the crucial issue of staying on topic. Novices in the field can easily lead audiences astray (or, vice-versa, can be lead astray by the force of the discussion). This tendency can be nipped in the bud during prep sessions by an attentive teacher, or through subtle guidance while monitoring classroom performance. Leaders should be acutely conscious as to how the ‘flow’ is being managed and preserved in the discussion. Designing and  managing this within the set time framework provided needs to be emphasized.


4. New Vocabulary

There is a very high chance that grasping the content fully will require that participants learn some new lexical items (and not just ‘words’). The first concern is when to do this (I suggest that this be done whenever they naturally appear in context, not before or after the main points are dealt with). Such items can/should be anticipated by the leader.


The key in explaining new vocabulary is to distinguish between the items of intrinsic, long-term, transferable value and those of instrumental value that one needs only to follow this discussion but which are not really useful for storage in the long-term lexicon. (for biology, ‘cellular degradation’ would fall in to the former category, ‘parthenogenesis’, probably the latter). This is most definitely an area in which the teacher can offer explicit guidance.


5. The ‘Handout’

Any handout (and by the way, realia and props are very effective too) should contain far more than the discussion-point ‘text’. The vocabulary items mentioned above can be listed on the handout for later reference. Key concepts can be written in shortened bullet-point form. Some kind of visuals aid and attract the viewer/listener. And some kind of task or two (Predictive? Summative? Content matching?) on the handout will keep participants actively engaged.


Finally, if dense content-heavy text is included, key points therein should be highlighted in some way. Discussion leaders should explicitly guide participants to the key points buried in longer texts (as opposed to simply making the participants read the full item). And, absolutely, do NOT give out the handout at the beginning of the discussion or run the risk of exposing all your exciting discussion goodies and turning it all into a reading task.


6. The Finish

The goal of a discussion leader is to make participants feel not only that they learned something tangible but also to feel that their participation was worthwhile. For any lasting impact, a strong ending is required.


Warning; All too often in Japan, such discussion end suddenly with a rather startling ‘Finished’ (or, even worse, ‘Finish!’) or ‘That’s all.’ Not only are these terms inappropriate for endings they effectively slam the door in the face of the audience.


An explicit ‘take home message’ is increasingly being touted as a key concept for both presenters and discussion leaders these days, although the danger is that these are often reduced to general slogans (‘Eat well to stay healthy!’). Rather than employing a salesman-like catchphrase, leaders would do well to, say, elicit the main 3 points of the discussion or ask each participant one thing they learned in the discussion. And of course, asking if participants have any further comments or questions is crucial.


Modeling the skills

A good way to inculcate these skills is to first actually lead a discussion yourself as a demonstration and include the skills I’ve mentioned above in your ‘model lesson’ (I’ve done model lessons on craft beer as well as the differences between red & white wine). You should be more knowledgeable on the topic that your students/participants, but not so much that too much intricate detail paralyzes the discussion. After the model lesson is done you can elicit from the students the techniques you used to make it ‘work’ (presumably!) so that they become more explicitly aware of them.



Finally, you’ll need to give your students a chance to perform as a discussion leader. Here’s an outlines as to how to actually practice and develop these skills in a typical EFL classroom:

  1. Do your model lesson and then elicit the skills and procedures you employed from the students.
  2. Tell them that they will also prepare to be a discussion leader. They will have one class to prepare (after this one) and then they will do it. The prep class allows you to check if topics are viable (and not repeated) and if the leader is likely to generate interest while also teaching something of value. The teacher can also give individual advice on the handout, opening Q’s, vocab, flow, and points for elicitation in this class. Leaders should also be reminded that handout need to be printed and copied (one for each participant) before the performance class starts.
  3. Performance Day (or, depending on the number of students you have, performance days). Imagining a 90- minute class of 24 students, here’s how I suggest it could be managed:

Step 1:

Divide the students (using 24 as an example) into 4 groups of 6 (6 strong or highly personable students are best to start), thus creating sets A, B, C, and D. Since non-leaders will be participants, you probably don’t want a ratio of more than 4 to 1, or else discussion will likely be minimized.


Step 2:

Set A prepare their physical discussion areas, small circles of 4 seats, preferably with a desktop or table nearby. The other 18 students will, at first, be the participants. Three of these participants are sent to each of the 6 arranged seating areas. (Participants should be informed in advance about what it means to be a good participant – being active, attentive etc. And this can/should be included as part of any evaluation you may be considering).


Step 3:

The leaders then conduct the discussions simultaneously in these 6 groups. (Groups can be determined in advance by a simple algorithm making sure that group members are shifted such that some point everyone has been with everyone else). The time allotted is 15 minutes (20 would be ideal). Keep track of time and let leaders know when there are 5 and 1 minute remaining).


Step 4:

After this first discussion, participants shift to different leaders and the same discussion is repeated. This will happen three times. You will note that the first discussion might be a bit sloppy in many regards but it is improved by the second, and mastered by the 3rd, as the leader gain control over their topics and confidence with themselves. Thus far, about 45 minutes will have elapsed.


 Step 5:

Now, Set B can serve as leaders, with Set A joining C and D as participants. The scenario above is repeated. This fills a full 90 minute class, For Sets C and D the next lesson will be allotted using the same pattern. The teacher of course wanders between groups during sessions, monitoring for problems and occasionally jumpstarting a discussion that is lacking energy or has lost direction.


This entire task works on several levels:

  • The students have to research and organize a topic. Good for gaining knowledge, good for cognitive development, good for self-expression skills.
  • The students are using a lot of English output in a prestige’ situation, which generally guarantees that they care about their performance.
  • A fair bit of topic and stylistic autonomy is provided so the students feel that the discussion I something they have active ownership of.
  • It is managed in real-time through cooperation and negotiation with their peers. This puts motivation a notch higher.
  • They actually learn, through experience, some discussion leadership skills that may serve them well in the future.


Finish! That’s all!





Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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