Collaborative Reasoning: Small Group Discussions and Their Impact on Language Learning

Small group discussions are probably one of the most common activities in education, especially language education. But do they do any good? Sure, students are listening and talking. However, does this have any effect on their speaking or listening skills? If so, does this effect transfer to writing? Despite being a ubiquitous form of organization in the classroom, there is not a lot of research in this area. Luckily, Zhang*, Anderson  and Nguyen-Jahiel (2013) shed some light on this by looking what impact focused text-based discussions have on students language skills. Specifically, they look at a discussion activity called Collaborative Reasoning and found that “engaging ELLs in language-rich discussions accelerates receptive and expressive language development” (p. 58).

Collaborative Reasoning (CR)

CR is a peer-led small group discussion activity in which learners “learn to use the discourse of reasoned argumentation to discuss stories or texts that they have read” (p. 45). It is centered around a text (usually with some central issue) and a “Big Question” related to the issue in that text. Students take a position on the big question and support their position with critical reasoning and evidence from the text. Participants are encouraged to listen, question, and challenge each other’s opinion if they disagree. Students manage their own discussions, and turn-taking is natural and dynamic. The teacher is a facilitator rather than a participant.

Rationale for CR (p. 45)

  • meaningful and structured opportunities to master the use of academic language (Calderon, Hertz-Lazavowitz, & Slavin, 1998)
  • Cooperative learning promotes the use of a wider range of communicative functions, such as paraphrasing the ideas of others, asking for clarification, summarizing, indicating agreement or disagreement (McGroarty, 1993)
  • extended opportunities for open discussions of complex issues
    • rate of talk almost doubles during CR
  • involves cognitive processes known to be productive for learning, such as elaborating text propositions, making predictions, using evidence, and expressing and considering alternative perspectives (Chinn et al., 2001; Reznitskaya et al., 2001).

The Study

  • Participants were 5th grade students in an urban low-to-middle SES school in the US (n=90)
    • 83% of the students are Latinx English language learners, and these are the only students considered in the study (n=75)
    • Control: 1 sheltered bilingual class (ELLs only) and 1 mainstream class (a mix of ELL and non-ELL)
    • CR Condition: 1 sheltered bilingual class and 1 mainstream class
  • Procedure
    • 1 day of training for four teachers
    • two 20-minute sessions per week for four weeks (8 sessions total)
  • Texts
    • 8 stories based on topics of friendship, fairness, justice, winning/losing, ethnic/racial identity, etc.
    • Second to fifth grade level
    • For each story, there was a “Big Question”
    • Examples
      • Ronald Morgan Goes to Bat – Big Question: “Should the coach let Ronald [a horrendous baseball player who has great team spirit] play on the team?”
      • On My Honor – Big Question: “Should Joel go to Starved Rock with Tony [a friend who is a reckless adventure seeker]?”
      • My Name is Maria Isabel – Big Question: “Should Maria [who has the same name as a classmate] change her name to Mary as the teacher suggested?”
  • Pretests
    • Pre-tests: vocabulary checklist (a mix of real and fake words; see Anderson and Freebody, 1983), sentence grammaticality judgment test (via listening), and Gates-MacGinitie reading comprehension test
      • Results: no significant differences between groups
  • Post-tests and Results
Post-test Explanation Results
Sentence Verification Technique (SVT) – Reading (Marchant et al., 1988) a comprehension test which asks students to read or listen to a sentence and decide if it has the same meaning as a sentence in the text

For each test, 3 passages were used. They were below-, at-, and above- level

  • All CR classes performed statistically better
Sentence Verification Technique (SVT) – Listening (Marchant et al, 1988)
  • Students in the mainstream CR condition had significantly better results
  • No difference between CR and control for students in bilingual classes
Cloze Reading  comprehension test based on new passages
  • Students in the mainstream CR condition had almost significantly better results (but not statistically significant)
  • No difference between CR and control for students in bilingual classes
  • Children with higher initial proficiency in the CR condition had significantly higher scores
Storytelling task using a picture book to retell a story
  • CR has a significant effect or all groups
  • CR students produced more coherent narratives
  • CR students produced more words, but it was not statistically significant
  • No differences in vocabulary and syntax
Reflective Essay An argumentative based on a new three-page story that required students to give their opinion on a proposition from the story.
  • CR condition contain more T-units (clauses and their subordinate clauses) and a greater variety of vocabulary
  • CR condition used more reasons, counterarguments, and text evidence
  • CR had a greater effect on the bilingual class (compared to the control)
  • CR had no major effect when mainstream classes were compared
  • No students in the bilingual control group used text evidence
Attitude Questionnaire  10-item questionnaire regarding feelings towards discussion (CR specifically for the CR condition group, classroom discussions for the control group) and English
  • CR students were more motivated, engaged, and had better attitudes towards learning English
  • Further analysis revealed that there is no correlation between motivation or engagement and language outcomes (which was hypothesized)


Overall, the authors found that those who participated in CR classes benefited positively. The effects were evident in both the productive and receptive skills measured. The authors attributed this to a number of reasons (p. 58):

deeper reading of the set of stories, enabling students to obtain a better understanding of narrative structure


deeper reading in order to be better prepared for discussions


students had more opportunities to express extended ideas in English during CR discussions, sharing their understandings of stories, making personal connections, and citing the evidence from stories, which should improve students’ skill at expressing narratives

Interestingly, they also found that higher-proficiency students (mostly in mainstream) benefited more in terms of listening comprehension whereas lower-proficiency students did not. This was attributed to three possible reasons: 1) low-proficiency students may need more time to make gains; 2) low-proficiency students may have cognitive overload and limited verbal working memory or phonological loop resources due to lessened ability to process aural input; or 3) the teacher in the bilingual classes (i.e. lower-proficiency classes) was less confident in their usage of collaborative reasoning, thus causing possible issues in terms of implementation.


This study found that “engaging ELLs in language-rich discussions accelerates receptive and expressive language development (p. 58). These findings can likely be generalized to any age group and context if based on level- and age-appropriate reading material. Thus, these types of discussions are likely of benefit to all students, even with short interventions like the study above. The research also supports a similar discussion activity popular in EAP settings: academic reading circles, which are also structured peer-led small group discussions that are based on viewing a text from different academic and linguistic perspectives. Clearly, having students engage in structured small group discussions is a beneficial activity that we should not only continue but also structure in a way that supports the use of academic communication skills (opinion, evidence, evaluation, agreement, disagreement, etc.). We should use these activities not simply as “speaking practice” but as a meaningful way to develop these skills. And finally, small group discussions should be integrated, whenever possible, with writing in order to provide a medium of transfer from spoken to written academic communication.

Collaborative Reasoning Resources


Anderson, R. C., & Freebody, P. (1983). Reading comprehension and the assessment and acquisition of word knowledge. In Hutson, B. (Ed.). Advances in reading/language research (Vol. II, pp. 231–256). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press

Calderon, M., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., & Slavin, R. (1998). Effects of bilingual cooperative integrated reading and composition on students transitioning from Spanish to English reading. Elementary School Journal, 99, 153–165.

Chinn, C. A., Anderson, R. C., & Waggoner, M. A. (2001). Patterns of discourse during two kinds of literature discussion. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(4), 378–411.

Marchant, H. G., Royer, J. M., & Greene, B. A. (1988). Superior reliability and validity for a new form of the sentence verification technique for measuring comprehension. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 48, 827–834.

McGroarty, M. (1993). Cooperative learning and second language acquisition. In D. D. Holt (Ed.), Cooperative Learning: A response to linguistic and cultural diversity (pp. 19–46). McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta System, Inc.

Zhang, J., Anderson, R. C., & Nguyen-Jahiel, K. (2013). Language-rich discussions for English language learners. International Journal of Educational Research, 58, 44-60. Retrieved from here.

*Zhang – This post was reviewed by Jie Zhang, lead author of the original article.

Featured photo by chrisreadingfoto (Pixabay)

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Anthony Schmidt
English language Instructor at University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Anthony Schmidt is editor of ELT Research Bites. He also has his own blog at Offline, he is a full-time English language instructor in a university IEP program. He is interested in all aspects of applied linguistics, in particular English for Academic Purposes.

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