Socratic Circles and the Common Core: An Introduction (Part I)

In this three-part series, we would like to share some strategies for fostering English language learners' (ELLs) oral language as part of Common Core-based instruction. Our focus will be on practical strategies for including ELLs in Socratic circles. First, we'll offer some background on Socratic circles and provide video examples. Then, we'll describe their connection to the Common Core and we'll highlight why Socratic circles might be challenging for ELLs. Finally, we'll provide scaffolding suggestions to help you support ELLs when they take part in Socratic circles.

In Part II of this post, we'll share more ideas for preparing for a Socratic circle with a close read of the text and then walk through the activity step by step in Part III.

What a Socratic Circle Is

A Socratic circle, also known as Socratic seminar, is a teaching strategy used to support deep understanding of a specific piece of writing, music, or art. It is based on Socrates' belief in the importance of developing students' ability to think critically and independently through the use of dialogue. The focus of the Socratic method is on giving students questions rather than answers. By posing and responding to questions, students examine and reevaluate their beliefs on a particular topic. In additional to fostering critical thinking, Socratic circles are designed to support student collaboration, creativity, and intellectual curiosity.

Prior to the Socratic circle activity, students read, analyze and take notes on a common "text" (e.g., novel, poem, song, or painting). Students are then typically divided into two groups - an inner and an outer circle. (You can see photos on this blog from Linda Clifford, principal of Colin L. Powell Elementary School in Centreville, VA.) The activity begins with the inner circle of students engaging in dialogue about the text and the outer circle observing. After a specified period of time, the outer circle provides feedback to the inner circle on their conversation, and the two groups of students switch roles. Throughout the activity the teacher acts as a facilitator.

The activity is not meant to result in a winning argument, as opposed to debates. Students are expected to use the text to support their ideas, ask questions, share their opinions, and build on the ideas of others. The following video clips from the Teaching Channel provide two different examples of teachers using Socratic circles in their high school classrooms. The first is a more traditional form of Socratic circle, while the second has ELLs involved in the activity.

The Connections Between Socratic Circles and the Common Core

Socratic circles can be an effective instructional activity to help students work toward the CCSS for several reasons. Students:

  • Are required to use text-based evidence to support their ideas
  • Identify and evaluate claims and counterclaims
  • Summarize points of agreement
  • Practice drawing inferences from texts
  • Initiate and participate effectively in a discussion
  • Pose and respond to questions that relate to the discussion
  • Prepare for a discussion or dialogue on a particular topic
  • Gain practice in using the conventions of standard English grammar and general academic and domain-specific vocabulary when speaking
  • Develop listening skills
  • Gain understanding of other perspectives

Why Socratic Circles Can Be Challenging for ELLs

Photo credit: Students at Colin L. Powell Elementary School, Centreville, VA.

Although they present great potential to engage students in discussions around complex text, Socratic circles can be especially challenging to ELLs. First of all, the mere thought of having to speak about a nuanced topic in front of the entire class without linguistic support could be especially nerve-wracking for ELLs who are at lower levels of proficiency (or shy students in general). In order to effectively participate in this type of discourse, ELLs need to have a deep understanding of the text being discussed.

Also, the pace and language of the discussion may prove a challenge for some ELLs who need time and support to digest what others are saying and frame their ideas before presenting them orally. In addition, without specific support, ELLs may not have the academic language necessary to orally summarize, refute, or support the ideas of others.


Recommendations for Scaffolding Socratic Circles for ELLs

The following table provides specific strategies to help ELLs prepare for and participate in Socratic circles.

Preparing for Socratic circles: Students need deep understanding of the text.
  • Be sure that students are adequately prepared for the activity by giving students sufficient scaffolding to understand the text (e.g., concise background knowledge, glossaries, scaffolded text-dependent questions).
  • Provide students with graphic organizers to help them frame their thinking about the text in writing.
  • Give students practice and support in developing open-ended questions about a particular text.
  • Give students practice in anticipating the types of open-ended questions that other students might ask about a text.
Modeling:Students need to know what high quality responses and questions sound like.
  • Model a successful Socratic circle by first practicing the following steps with a familiar text at a lower level of complexity.
  • Provide ELLs with opportunities to practice questioning and responding in small groups before expecting them to participate in a whole class discussion.
  • Provide sentence stems that students can use in asking and responding to questions, clarifying others' ideas, and commenting on the ideas of others. Give students practice in using these stems.
  • Highlight questions or responses that are particularly effective. Explain why those particular questions or responses are of high quality.
Balancing Participation: Help support ELLs' participation in the discussion.
  • If some students are dominating the discussion, limit all participants to a certain number of questions and responses.
  • Guide students to invite those who are less active to participate (e.g., "Marisol, what do you think about what Sam said?")
  • As the facilitator, use the last few minutes of the discussion to invite those students who haven't asked a question to take part in the discussion.
  • Be comfortable with silence. The time will allow those who need more time to think more opportunities to participate.

In closing, Socratic circles can be an effective strategy for helping students practice specific skills required by the Common Core. However, without specific forms of support it may be difficult for ELLs to actively participate. We'd love to hear how you have used Socratic circles in your classrooms and your successes and challenges.

Photo credit: Students at Colin L. Powell Elementary School, Centreville, VA.


background knowledge and time to think are important reminders

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