The Number One Strategy for Teaching Comprehension: Discussion

Remember, the definition of comprehension is the ability to develop a justifiable, personal interpretation of text. It is the ability to say, “Here is what this means to me, and this is the reason why.” You can approach comprehension instruction in many ways (and you should), but one way is better than all others: discussion.

Back in chapter 4, I discussed how discussion helps students develop their oral language skills, and I described discussion like this: Discussion is not about responding to questions with the “right” answer. Discussion is

  • sharing one’s own ideas,
  • asking questions,
  • agreeing and disagreeing,
  • explaining and defending a position,
  • contributing more information, and
  • expanding on others’ ideas.

When students are discussing a text, not only do they refine their own ideas but also they help other student’s refine theirs.

Discussion is more than sitting around and talking at random. As the teacher, your primary role during discussion is to ask questions that help students reflect on the content, their own ideas, and the information and ideas that other students share. To a lesser degree, your role is also to (a) provide additional background information and (b) encourage students to consider specific content within the text that might help them modify their interpretations.

To lead a productive discussion, you have to have a good plan and the right approach. The plan is the purpose you want students to accomplish and the questions you will ask to help them achieve that purpose. The approach is the way you interact with the students and get them to interact with each other. Stay away from the yes/no and true/false questions, and refrain from suggesting that students are right or wrong. Instead, ask them to justify their ideas and to respond to other students’ ideas, provide additional information and ask them how it relates to their ideas, and get them talking to one another!

Before engaging students in discussion, consider the questions that you are going to ask. Certainly, you will want to ask questions to make sure they know the facts in the content, such as the who, what, when, where, and how information. Once you are past those questions, though, you will want to ask “higher order questions” that require deeper thinking and reflection about the text. Bloom’s Taxonomy and Depth of Knowledge provide excellent guidance for these questions. They also give you clues about what students can do to demonstrate thinking at that level.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Discussion

By definition, “taxonomy” means a system for categorizing and classifying information. Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised 2001) is one way to categorize various types of thinking skills and processes. For many years, until Depth of Knowledge gained popularity, I would point to Bloom’s Taxonomy and recommend that teachers use it to plan for discussion. (I still do!) From the lowest-level thinking skills (#1) to the highest-level thinking skills (#6), Bloom’s taxonomy is as follows.


Central Question

Possible Actions

1. Remembering

What is the information?





2. Understanding

What messages or ideas does the text present?






3. Applying

What can you do with the information?






4. Analyzing

How does the information compare with other information?





5. Evaluating

What are the quality and value of the information?






6. Creating

How can you merge the information with information from other sources to create new knowledge?






Notice three things about this taxonomy.

  1. Knowledge is the lowest level. Recalling information requires the least thinking. If you never get beyond the knowledge level, you cannot comprehend text.
  2. To attain the definition of reading comprehension, students must apply all levels.
  3. Students can do many things to demonstrate that they addressing each level of the taxonomy.

Also, notice one very important issue about the possible actions. Although students can perform these actions in many different ways, they can perform them all during discussion. This is one reason that discussion is so powerful for developing comprehension. As you are planning for the discussion, make sure to include questions that will require students to match each level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Can young children conduct such sophisticated thinking skills? Absolutely. Perhaps the depth and complexity of thinking will be low-level, but the thinking process can be high level. Let’s say you just read two short books to a group of four-year-old children. Ask them to pick their favorite book and tell you why they liked it better. That’s evaluation, the highest level of thinking skills on Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Depth of Knowledge and Discussion

Dr. Norman Webb developed the Depth of Knowledge taxonomy to help educators develop assessments that measure different ways for students to demonstrate understanding. The purpose of Depth of Knowledge in reading is to describe the complexity of knowledge required to demonstrate understanding and how in-depth students will share their knowledge.

How extensively will students be asked to demonstrate their understanding? For example, does an assessment (or lesson objective) require students to recall the facts or to use their knowledge to create something new? The four levels of Depth of Knowledge (for reading) describe how deeply students must understand what they read and how extensively they use what they understand. The questions you ask during discussion determine what the students do with their knowledge and how they use their knowledge to respond.

Depth of Knowledge is increasingly popular in education circles, and many teachers I have worked with are expected to use it by their school administrators. The four Depth of Knowledge levels are as follows.


Central Questions

Possible Actions*

DOK-1: Recall and Reproduce Knowledge

What knowledge has the student acquired?





DOK-2: Apply Knowledge

How can the knowledge be used?





DOK-3: Analyze Knowledge

Why is the knowledge valuable, relevant, and useful?





DOK-4: Transfer and Extend Knowledge

How else can the knowledge be used?





*Note: These actions represent various manners of demonstrating knowledge, not the complexity of mental actions or processes.

Notice two things about this taxonomy.

  1. Each level assumes that the student already has knowledge and understanding of the text.
  2. Each level has many actions for students to demonstrate knowledge at that level, and each action can be conducted in many different ways.

Bloom’s Taxonomy or Depth of Knowledge?

When I provide professional development on reading, I discuss using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide for planning discussion. Teachers can use Bloom’s Taxonomy to pose discussion questions that require higher-order thinking skills and that lead to comprehension. I am regularly asked about using Depth of Knowledge instead of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The answer, unfortunately, is “depends.”

Bloom’s Taxonomy and Depth of Knowledge have different purposes.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Depth of Knowledge

various levels of thinking skills

least to highest order thinking skills

used to increase cognitive rigor

various ways of demonstrating knowledge

simplest to most extensive way to demonstrate knowledge

used to increase expression of knowledge

A common misconception about Depth of Knowledge is that higher levels actions require more sophisticated mental processes. They don’t…at least not inherently. The level of thinking does not depend on the action but on what students are asked to do with the action. Level one is pretty straightforward, and requires the least mental processing, but after that, things get muddy. The level of thinking required to perform some actions in level two may be more complex than performing some actions in level four. For example, a student may be able to connect (level four) knowledge about horses to a story about a character who rides horses, but might not be able to predict (level two) what will happen next in the story.

The so-called DOK wheel promotes this misconception by placing action verbs in various quadrants of the wheel. (“So-called” because Dr. Webb did not create it and has noted that it does not accurately reflect the principles and purpose of the Depth of Knowledge taxonomy.) Teachers might incorrectly assume that if they have students perform certain actions, they are asking students to use different levels of thinking. In reality, the level of thinking depends on what cognitive processes are required to conduct those actions for that specific lesson. For example, level three includes the verb “compare,” but what are students comparing? Comparing the way two characters talk is not too challenging, but comparing the writing of two journalists to determine bias about a topic is quite challenging.

So the answer is “depends.” If you are helping students develop the higher-order thinking skills for comprehension, use Bloom’s Taxonomy. If you are helping students demonstrate their knowledge to different degrees, use Depth of Knowledge. Both taxonomies are useful as you engage students in discussion or other instructional activities for comprehension. Using either system will help students achieve the expectations of the other system.

If you use Bloom’s Taxonomy to plan for discussion:

prepare questions based on a variety of levels, aiming towards the top level. Start by assessing basic knowledge (level one), then advance upwards towards level six.

If you use Depth of Knowledge to plan for discussion:

prepare questions that ask students to perform a variety of actions for each level, but sequence them from “easier” to “harder” questions. Start by assessing basic knowledge (level one), and then ask questions that reflect the other three levels, using your best guess to estimate which questions will be more difficult to answer.