Standard Lesson

Thoughtful Threads: Sparking Rich Online Discussions

5 - 12
Lesson Plan Type
Standard Lesson
Estimated Time
Seven 45-minute sessions
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Online literature circles provide students opportunities to discuss a literary work in a forum in which each student has a voice and the chance to share ideas without being interrupted by others. In this multisession lesson, students choose a novel that will spark discussion and elicit deep literature response from a list of selected titles. Students read and discuss their chosen text online with their peers and respond to both teacher- and student-created prompts. Student-constructed quality prompts invite group members to think deeper about the literature, engage in meaningful conversation, and share multiple perspectives and unique points of view. After completing an online discussion, students review a transcript of their discussions and reflect on the value of their experience.

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From Theory to Practice

  • Individual readers breathe life into written text through personal meaning making and prior experiences. Online literature circles have potential for fostering literacy skills as students exchange their unique perspectives and prior experiences.

  • Online literature circles support socially constructed learning as they provide students equitable opportunities to share their thoughts and voice individual opinions without being interrupted by others.

  • When students construct their own literature discussion prompts, they encourage group members to think deeper about the literature while maintaining ownership of the conversation.

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
  • 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.

Materials and Technology

  • Computers with Internet access

  • Classroom computer with projection capability (for demonstration)




1. Divide the class into groups of 4 to 6 students. Consider students' prior experience, interests, and reading levels, as each reader will contribute unique perspectives to the discussions.

2. Identify a selection of appropriate book titles that will spark discussion and elicit deep literature response. You'll need 4 to 6 copies needed of each title; see Suggested Books for ideas. Each literature circle group will choose a title during Session 1.

3. Schedule the seven lesson sessions, allowing 1 to 2 days between lessons for reading and online discussion.

4. Make a copy for each student of the Reading Schedule, Creating Prompts, Student Progress Report, and Student Self Reflection. Make one copy for each group of the Transcript Group Reflection.

5. Review your district's technology policy and guidelines. If needed, obtain consent for participation in online discussions from students' parents or guardians.

6. Familiarize yourself with the suggested online discussion platforms and their functions. Also explore other options, such as the message board functions of Blackboard (if your local district uses this software) or similar communication tools. Choose the platform that is most appropriate for your class, taking into consideration the following:
  • Your choice should reflect both the technology guidelines of your school and the resources of your students. If students do not have home Internet access, all discussion activities will need to take place on school computers. If you want students to engage in online discussion after school hours, you will need to use a platform they can access from home, such as PBWorks or ePals.

  • The lesson makes use of discussion board statistics such as length and number of posts, so you may wish to choose a platform that tracks these numbers automatically. These include Blackboard or Moodle, which is a free course management system that can be used for asynchronous message board discussions.
7. Set up an online discussion forum for your class on your chosen software platform, creating a separate message board (or wiki page, or email list) for each literature group. If required by the software, create accounts and generate passwords for students.

8. Identify relevant vocabulary used in describing online discussions (thread, post, reply, asynchronous, etc.). You will introduce and define these terms for students during Session 2.

9. For each book you have selected for the lesson, prepare a broad discussion prompt specific to that title. Post each prompt on the appropriate area of your online discussion platform. These teacher-created prompts will be used during Session 2 to model and initiate the online discussion process for students, prior to having them create their own prompts.

10. Reserve your school's computer lab or mobile computer carts for Sessions 2, 3, and 4. If necessary, reserve additional time on school computers for assigned literature discussions following Sessions 2, 3, 5, and 6. Arrange for access to a computer with projection capability for Sessions 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • Develop written communication skills as they draw on a wide range of prior experience and personal interpretation of literature and share these ideas with others

  • Formulate effective literature discussion prompts that elicit insightful conversations and encourage multiple perspectives

  • Participate as reflective members of an online literacy community by contributing to discussions and evaluating the effectiveness of such conversations

Session 1

1. Explain to students that they will participate in literature circles as they read and respond to a new book. However, rather than meeting as a group within the classroom, these literature conversations will take place online.

2. Display and introduce each of the books you have chosen (see Suggested Books). Have each literature group select a title for reading and discussion, and distribute copies of the selected books to students.

3. Distribute copies of the Reading Schedule to students. Explain the projected timeline for reading and responding to the books. Have students meet in their groups to divide their book into six sections and record the pages/chapters for each section on the schedule.

Homework: Students should complete the first reading assignment (as indicated on the Reading Schedule) prior to the next session.

Session 2

1. Thank students for completing their assigned readings. Emphasize the importance of following the Reading Schedule now that they will be discussing what they have read on the online forum.

2. Review the purpose and procedures of literature circles. If students have prior experience with literature circles, discuss how previously assigned roles such as Discussion Director or Summarizer may change, or be eliminated, as the conversations move online. The online format allows all students ample thinking time, and opportunity to voice their opinions without interruptions of others. Focus on the importance of collaboration and cooperation.

3. Ask students to share their experience with different means of online communication. Explain that they will be using an asynchronous (not in real time) discussion forum. Using a computer with projection capability, demonstrate the discussion platform you have created for the class. Show how to start a new conversation (by posting a new thread, or using a new subject line) and how to reply to (or comment on) someone else's post.

4. During the demonstration, introduce relevant vocabulary, such as asynchronous, thread (a message board conversation, or a series of emails with the same subject line), post (message posted on the board), and reply or comment (responding to someone else's post).

5. Explain the rules and expected conduct for the discussion forum.
  • Inform students that you will be reading their online conversations.

  • Inform students whether they may use abbreviations, emoticons, and other common features of online conversational language; or whether they must use standard writing conventions.

  • Let students know whether they may access the discussion forum after school hours.
6. Provide students with any account information (such as user names and passwords) they will need to access the online discussion forum.

7. Point out the prompts you already posted on the discussion board. Instruct students to begin their discussion by replying directly to your prompt for their book. They should then reply to several of their group members' responses. Emphasize that the goal is to achieve a natural conversation/discussion among group members.

Homework (due at the beginning of Session 3): Students should complete the second reading assignment. Encourage students to continue their discussion on the discussion forum.

Session 3

1. Ask students for feedback regarding their online conversations. Discussion questions may include: How are online conversations different from traditional literature circles? How are they similar? What questions or comments do they have about using the technology for online discussion?

2. Explain to students that they will now be in charge of starting their own discussions, or creating new threads. Emphasize that to spark good conversations a prompt should evoke deep thought and relate to the literature. Good prompts help readers relate the text to prior life experiences, elicit alternative viewpoints, and spark further questions or inquiry. Furthermore, good prompts should be open-ended, to avoid simple yes-or-no answers from group members. Open-ended questions often begin with why, tell me about, or explain.

3. Distribute the handout Creating Prompts and discuss the characteristics of a good prompt. Go over the handout, focusing on the checklist. Using a computer and projection device, review the teacher-created prompts that sparked the online discussions during Session 2. Ask students to critique these prompts and explain why they were (or were not) good discussion starters. Invite students to contribute additional example prompts based on their own reading.

4. Have students work independently to fill out the handout, and then post their selected prompts on the online forum. Assist students in selecting their best prompts to post online.

5. Explain that each group member should start a new thread (post a prompt), and should also read and respond to the prompts of other group members. Remind students to invite discussion rather than conduct a question-and-answer session.

Homework: Students should read the third section of their books (as indicated on the Reading Schedule) prior to the next session. Encourage continued discussion on the discussion forum.

Note: Prior to Session 4, review the online discussions and assess the quality of student-created prompts. (Which prompts sparked discussion? Are prompts open-ended? Do prompts invite sharing of alternative viewpoints and prior experiences?) Plan to adapt the activities in Session 4 as needed, based on the quality of students' discussions so far. Choose examples from the discussion forums to illustrate strengths and weaknesses of discussion prompts.

Session 4

1. Invite whole-class discussion about prompt writing. Did students enjoy composing their own prompts? How is this different from having you ask the questions? How does the overall quality of a literature discussion depend on the initial prompt? Use examples from the online discussions to support the conversation.

2. Explain to students that there are various kinds of prompts:
  • Experiential prompts focus on what the reader brings to the reading experience through prior personal experience and prior knowledge.

  • Aesthetic prompts promote emotional response to the text, so they tend to bring out heartfelt and emotional discussions.
    Cognitive prompts encourage readers to make predictions, solve problems, and make inferences regarding the plot and characters.

  • Interpretive prompts call for a higher level of reasoning as they encourage readers to contemplate personal morals or values, meaning or message, and call for judgment of plot and characters.

  • Clarification prompts encourage group members to collaboratively make sense of the unfolding plot by asking specific questions about the plot or characters.
Encourage students to use a variety of prompts as they start new threads. If time allows, ask students to review their online discussions to identify the types of prompts they have used up to this point.

3. If students need additional practice writing prompts, distribute new copies of the handout Creating Prompts and have students repeat the handout activities.

4. Explain to students that just as a well-written prompt can enhance a conversation, so can a thoughtful reply. As students reply to posts, they should ask themselves:
  • Does my response relate to the book? Does it contain supporting details from the book?

  • Did I relate my response to my personal experiences and provide examples?

  • Did I provide sufficient information in my response so that it makes sense to others?
5. Point out the importance of including details in a reply. For example, if students agree or disagree with a previously posted comment, they should explain why. Remind students that one-word answers do not spark further conversation.

6. Direct students to continue their online discussions. Ask them to think about the quality of both their prompts and replies.

Homework (due at the beginning of Session 5): Students should complete the fourth reading assignment (as indicated on the Reading Schedule). Tell students to temporarily halt their online discussion as you prepare the statistical reports for Session 5 (see note below).

Note: Prior to Session 5, review the quality of students' prompts and replies. Access the statistical summary of the discussion forum (if available) and find a report showing the number and average length of each literature group's posts. Also print out an individual report for each student with information about his or her discussion forum activities, including number of posts and average length of each post (to be used in Session 5). If you are using a discussion platform (e.g., a wiki or e-mail mailing list) that does not generate statistical summaries, you will need to create comparable statistical reports. Consider copying and pasting the discussions into a Microsoft Word document and using the Word Count tool to determine the length of students' posts.

Session 5

1. Explain to students that you have generated statistical reports regarding their use of the discussion forum.

2. Using a projector and screen, display statistical data for the class as a whole. Point out statistics showing how many posts each group made and the average length of those posts. Be sure to emphasize that more is not necessarily better. These numbers are just one way to look at the discussion activity. Discuss possible reasons for variations in frequency and length of posts. For example, different books elicit different types of response, some students are "chattier" than others, and groups with more members will likely have more posts. Note: To protect students' privacy, only display whole-class or group information on the screen. Provide personal data to individual students.

3. Distribute individual reports to students along with the handout Student Progress Report. Model how to interpret the individual report and fill in the handout. Encourage self-reflection and individual goal setting.

Homework (due at the beginning of Session 6): Students should read the fifth section of their books (as indicated on the Reading Schedule) and continue communicating on the discussion board. Ask students to focus on both the length and quality of their discussions.

Note: Prior to the next session print out a complete transcript of each group's online discussion and make a copy for each group member. Also create a brief example transcript (or choose an example from discussions conducted by another class) for use in Session 6.

Session 6

1. Distribute copies of the groups' discussion transcripts and the handout Transcript Group Reflection. Using a computer and projection device, display your example transcript and model how to analyze and interpret the transcript, fill out the handout, and establish collaborative goals.

2. Have students meet in their groups to analyze their discussion transcripts. After all groups have completed the handout, ask each group to share a favorite prompt. Encourage class discussion and peer feedback: What are some similarities or differences in the shared prompts? Also have groups share their goals with the rest of the class, and ask, What can each group do to achieve their goals?

3. If time allows, refer to the different types of prompts explained in Session 4 (experiential, aesthetic, cognitive, interpretive, and clarification). Ask students to review their favorite prompt and identify its type. Discuss the types of prompts:
  • Which kinds of prompts tend to make the best discussion starters?

  • What kinds of prompts do students enjoy asking and answering the most?

  • Does the literature itself influence the kinds of prompts groups asked? Why?

Homework: Ask students to read the final section of their books (as indicated on the Reading Schedule) prior to the next session and continue their online discussions. Remind students to keep their collaborative goals in mind.

Note: Prior to Session 7, access the statistical summary of the discussion forum or create statistical reports as you did for Session 5 and print out individual reports for all students. (You will need to determine what kinds of reports are available to you and decide how to best use the information. For example, you may wish to include data from the beginning of the project, or only data for the time since the previous analysis in Session 5.)

Session 7

1. Conduct a whole class discussion of the literature circle activities. Invite students to reflect on the reading experience, and to share both highlights and frustrations involved in using the online discussion platform. Emphasize that the quality of their conversations improved when they focused on writing open-ended discussion prompts and insightful replies. Point out how these discussion techniques can also enhance face-to-face conversations. Ask students to explain some advantages and disadvantages of online communication as opposed to traditional face-to-face literature discussions.

2. Using a projector, display the statistical summary for each group (and/or the class as a whole). Compare the current data to the data displayed during Session 5, and discuss any differences or trends: What changes do you notice? What do you predict would happen to the statistics if the discussions continued for several more days?

3. Distribute individual statistical summaries to students, along with the handout Student Self Reflection. Model how to interpret the data and compare it with information from the previous individual statistical reports (used during Session 5). Encourage students to review the goals they listed on their Student Progress Report in Session 5, and use the Student Self Reflection to note any progress made. Collect the Student Self Reflection handouts at the end of class.


  • Encourage the literature circle groups to visit websites relating to their book and its author. Authors' websites are listed on the Suggested Books handout. If you are using alternative titles, The Reading Zone at the Internet Public Library may serve as a springboard to many authors' websites.

  • Have each group prepare and present a book talk or book review about their book, to encourage other students to read it as well.

  • Next time students participate in face-to-face book clubs or literature circles, invite them to create their own prompts to spark discussion

Student Assessment / Reflections

  • Review students’ posts on the discussion board prior to each session. Notice the quality and length of each post. Address any concerns or misconceptions at the beginning of each session. Note: It is important to recognize that length does not always correspond with quality. The statistical summaries should not be used alone to evaluate students’ performance.

  • Before students post their first prompts at the end of Session 3, review each student’s Creating Prompts handout to check for quality and understanding. Continue to monitor the discussion forum to ensure high quality of prompts.

  • At the end of Session 5, collect the completed Student Progress Reports. Assess each student’s progress and discussion forum contributions in comparison to the group’s average. Meet with students individually to discuss their goals and support them in achieving those goals.

  • At the end of Session 6, collect the completed Transcript Group Reflections. Use students’ observations on the handout to make sure students understand how different kinds of prompts affect subsequent conversations. Discuss each group’s goals with the group members and support the groups in achieving those goals.

  • At the end of Session 7, collect the Student Self Reflection from each student. Review individual goals from Session 5 and note progress in achieving these goals. Offer feedback to individual students.