Conversation starters for reading lessons and book clubs

Helbling Readers Catalogue 2018 cover illustration by Gabriella Giandelli. © Helbling Languages

Have you ever experienced how miraculously a good question can kick-start a classroom discussion or your Book Club session? What kind of questions and statements work better than others? How can you use them to engage your students in conversations about books? A book should be a successful point of reference during classroom speaking activities, not just in Book Clubs. When your students feel they have ‘nothing’ to say, you can always ask them to describe the plot, the scene or their favourite characters and go forward from there. However, if you know that they have a lot to say, but would like to direct their attention to certain themes to get them to use vocabulary and structures they would not normally use, you need good conversation starters.

1 As a general rule, open-ended questions simply work better.

Questions that only allow us to answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ will inevitably fail at the beginning of conversations unless you ask for explanations and stories from your students to back up their short answers. And even if you ask open-ended questions, there are open-ended inquiry questions that may work even better. These are embedded questions with ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘think’. It means that these more complicated questions usually work better with advanced level students who understand the differences between modals and who are familiar with embedded questions.

2 Personalize your questions…

… and focus on the characters in the book. Your students might feel uncomfortable if they have to talk about their own experiences. If you think they haven’t got problems sharing their own feelings, ask them directly.

  • How would you react to (a scene) if you were (a character)?
    • How would you react to the treatment of your friend if you were Jane Eyre?
  • Which character would you like to be in (a novel)? Why?
    • Which character would you like to be in Jane Austen’s Emma ? Why?

3 Share some surprising information about the books.

You can do some research on fun or surprising facts about the book you are reading with your Book Club or class. Here are a few examples from various resources.

You can also share interesting biographical data about authors and ask students how that might have influenced their writing. Remember that seemingly simple information can be interesting news for your students. For example:

  • Jack London was an oyster pirate for a short time, then he was arrested for vagrancy, and he also went to university before he followed the Gold Rush and went to the Klondike.
  • Charlotte and Emily Brontë were sisters. Can you see any similarities between their novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights? They had three more sisters and a brother. Their mother died when they were very young. They grew up in Yorkshire, where their novels are also set.
  • Did you know that the first stories of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame were written by him for his son, Alastair (‘Mouse’)? You can read the following information on the Bodleian Library’s website: “In the spring of 1907, Kenneth Grahame and his wife travelled to Cornwall for a long holiday. Their seven year old son Alastair, or ‘Mouse’, agreed to remain with his nanny, Miss Stott – but only if his father continued to tell him bedtime stories by post. His father agreed and over the next few months sent Alastair fifteen letters recounting the reckless adventures of Mr Toad and the attempts of his long-suffering friends, Mole, Rat and Badger, to rescue him from his various scrapes and teach him how to behave properly.”

4 Compare the story with its adaptations.

  • Did you know that Alice in Wonderland has had almost fifty film and TV adaptations? Why do you think it is such a popular story? Have you seen any adaptations? Which one is your favourite?

5 Be an omnipotent reader.

Imagine that you can change a scene or eliminate a character. What would you do?

  • Which character would you leave out of (a novel)? How would the series of events change?
  • How would you change (a scene)?
  • How would (title of the book) be different if it was set in another country?
  • How would you end the book if you could change it?

6 Focus on a scene.

Direct your students’ attention on a scene or passage in the book.

  • I cannot stop thinking about (a scene). Why do you think (character) said/did that?
  • How does (scene) describe the life of women in the Victorian Age?

7 Justify your likes/dislikes.

Sometimes we hear that our students simply ‘hate’ or ‘love’ a book or a character but they do not reflect on the reasons for these strong emotions. I have heard students saying that they cannot stand a story they had to read. When I asked why they seemed confused and thought that they might be wrong saying that they do not like the story. I like telling them that not liking a book is not a problem as long as they can explain why they do not like it.

  • So you can start your conversation by asking ‘(title of the book)’ Love it or hate it? Give me 5 reasons for loving or hating it.

8 Start with a quote from the book.

I have recently heard from a teacher friend that only one quote was enough for her to inspire a high-school student to read a novel by Truman Capote. Original quotes can motivate your students to read the novels as they act like samplers. Quotes stick with us, and sometimes all we remember is an important line from a novel. Share some of the favourite lines or the most popular lines from novels. Here are some examples.

  • “What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.” – To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  • “That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.”- The Adventures by Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • “We learn from failure, not from success!”- Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • “When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.”- Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
  • “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” – The Happy Prince and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

What conversation starters have worked for you? There are endless ways of starting a book discussion, and different approaches work with people of different ages, levels and interests. Share your ideas with us in the comments section below!

Comments are closed.