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Dialogue Circles: A Collaborative Classroom Routine to Promote Active Learning

By Sherina Isolica and Ana Carolina Nalini, Pueri Domus, Sao Paulo

“None of us is as smart as all of us”. Kenneth H. Blanchard “Don’t think you have to have it all figured out by yourself. Learn from others in the class and ask for help.” Adapted from “Some Thoughts About the Harkness Table” by Ralph Sneeden, Cindy Adams

Sustainable learning must not only be active but also student centered and meaningful in order to be effective and productive. In a bilingual setting in which students are navigating through content in a second language, there must be ample opportunity to extend the language used and to collaboratively seek deeper meaning and understanding. We at Pueri Domus have noticed that the use of dialogue circles as educational routines in classrooms are very effective not only in enhancing language acquisition but also in increasing student motivation, engagement and performance in their learning processes in all ages and in all content areas.

What is a Dialogue Circle? The origins of the word dialogue come from the Greek word dialegesthai, which shares a root with word of “dialect”, implying conversation about what is shared and also what is different.

Dialogue Circle is a platform provided to share knowledge responsibly about a specific topic. The Circles are shared explorations towards greater understanding and meaning. They are conversations in which participants make a conscious and deliberate attempt to suspend their assumptions and instead focus on both individual and group learning. This process builds a learning environment in which change can occur. It is a process during which students try to answer an open ended question and for that they need to fully comprehend the guiding question, identify what they don’t know in order to co-construct a collective response which meets the learning expectation while using academic language.

The Benefits of a Dialogue Circle This routine is a metacognition process that makes the connection between reading, writing and oral language in the classroom. As it is student centered it allows collective learning to take place. Moreover during content based conversation, students become accountable for their contributions and they develop a deeper understanding by considering multiple perspectives of the same topic. Dialogue Circles also provide valuable opportunities for students to comprehend and produce academic vocabulary when expressing ideas, doubts and opinions related to the content area. This routine takes into account differentiated leaning according to readiness, interest, and learning profile.


“Our last unit of investigation in grade two was about weather, and how it affects our daily lives in terms of clothing, leisure, calendar, etc. and we decided to work with dialogue circles to empower the kids during the process of learning, giving them the chance to talk about their previous knowledge about the subject studied and also giving them the chance to change their minds based on others’ opinion while listening to their friends ideas, instead of providing teacher-centered instructions only, as students usually accept the teachers’ speeches as unquestionable statements and don’t take their own experiences into account. With only a few guiding questions, the students co-created rich conversations about the subject with barely no teacher intervention, and it was brilliant to see them realizing that they had some knowledge about the topic without the teachers providing any previous information. After we started using dialogue circles in the classroom, students showed more confidence to talk and express their opinions, including students who barely participated in any discussions in the classroom, taking a stand in small group discussions and during teacher led lessons as well”.Educator:Valeska (Beit Yaacoov, São Paulo)
“During an English Prep Course I taught to Middle School students, I made use of the dialogue circle as a way to evaluate the academic vocabulary acquisition of the class at a specific point of the teaching process. A week before the circle day, I told the students that they should prepare themselves to present some answers to questions related to the main topic, which was World Cultures. After this preparation week, they came to class with some consistent replies for the questions I proposed. My main concerns were: helping them review and use the correct words to support their arguments, and leading them through the dialogue. My impression about the dialogue circle has always been that it is a very useful technique for vocabulary acquisition and discussion training. During a dialogue circle, the students are prepared, under the teacher’s orientation, for classic discussions situations, in which not only do they have to know specific academic vocabulary, but also know how to perform in a public deliberation.”Educator: Caio (Escola Pueri Domus,São Paulo)
“Dialogue Circles enables students to communicate about a specific topic using appropriate vocabulary. The routine also helps students reflect on and understand different points of view. It is very effective when the teacher needs to observe communication skills and/or content knowledge as the routine really makes thinking visible.” Educator: Tania Grade 5 (Escola Pueri Domus,São Paulo)
“The Dialogue Circle helped me a lot. In the outer circle I could take my time to get a better idea of the topic and I had time to organize my ideas.”Student: Lucas, Grade 6 (Escola Pueri Domus,São Paulo)

Setting Up

There are four main parts to a Dialogue Circle which can also be divided by input and output. Prior to the Dialogue there must be a guiding question related to the content being developed and the learning expectation.

Input Phase: Guiding Question and Input Sessions Output Phase: Dialogue Circle and Output Written Production

Part 1: Guiding Question This is the phase in which your students become curious and motivated in order to find an answer to an intriguing open ended question. Guiding questions must be: Content based; Relevant to curriculum and expectations; Comprehensible; Cognitively demanding; Open ended.

Part 2: Input Sessions

This is the phase in which the teacher is accountable for providing the students with academic vocabulary, language structures, content, differentiated informational material, visual aids such as word walls, maps, pictures, graphic organizers and mini lessons. Scaffolding is crucial to the input sessions to guarantee as much comprehension as possible.

Part 3: The Circle

There are two circles: one inner and one outer, both with clear expectations and roles. The Dialogue is driven by curiosity, learning, respect and working with differences. There is active learning going on in both and students are motivated to join the inner circle every time they have something to contribute to the discussion or to ask.

The inner circle: Four or more pre selected students join the inner circle while the other students are in the outer circle. The inner circle is responsible for developing a conversation aiming to find an answer to the guiding question based on the input material and previous class discussions.

The outer circle: The students joining the outer circle should actively listen to the inner circle. They can take notes and prepare themselves to join the inner circle later on.

Both circles provide students opportunities to deepen prior knowledge, change hypothesis and to make valuable connections. Furthermore, it is a chance for students to organize their thoughts and ideas before having to generate a written response which is structured and academic.

Guidelines for a Dialogue Circle: Everyone is expected to contribute by:

  1. coming prepared for the circle with mind maps, reading done, appropriate vocabulary and accountable talk organizing, leading

  2. summarizing, restating, clarifying

  3. offering examples from input material

  4.  asking questions

  5. commenting or giving an opinion

  6. making a suggestion

  7. asking for clarification

  8. reacting to comments

  9. analyzing a text, a comment, or the discussion itself

  10. restarting the discussion

  11. filling in a gap

  12. arguing a point

  13. asking for new information

  14. asking for comments or reactions

  15. making connections

Part 4: The Output This phase is the final part of the process in which students should ideally produce an academic written response to the guiding question. The students must be fully aware that their responses demonstrate that learning and language acquisition have taken place. The teacher should use rubrics and models to assess the production. Examples of output could be: compare and contrast, book reports, personal response, informative text, journal entry, descriptions and opinion writing.

Conclusion We have noticed that, as with any process, the students need to be well prepared for Dialogue Circles and they need to be offered constant opportunities to be part of this collaborative experience. With this routine we have observed that students learn to assume responsibilities, take ownership in creating their knowledge and learning the importance of their contributions towards a common goal. We have also seen that during the process the students gain a real understanding that to communicate effectively, they need to state their ideas clearly and as such active listening is a vital skill.

“In order to be proficient and productive students, English-language learners (ELLs) need many opportunities to interact in social and academic situations. Effective teachers encourage their students’ participation in classroom discussions, welcome their contributions, and motivate them by such practices.” Cazden, 2001; Stipek, 2002


Dialogue circles: Ritchart,R .(2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners

Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition:

Fortune Tara W. and Tedick Diane J. (eds)(2008): Pathways to Multilingualism: Evolving Perspectives on Immersion Education.

Met, M (1991). Learning Language through Content: Learning Content through Language

Lyster, R (2007). Learning and teaching languages through content: a counterbalanced approach. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Swain,M; Deters, P (2007). New mainstream SLA Theory: Expanded and Enriched. Modern language journal, 91, 820-836.

Swain, M; Lapkin, S (1995). “Problems in Output and the Cognitive Processes They Generate: A Step Toward Language Learning”. Applied Linguistics 16:371-391.

Sneeden, R;  Adams,C “Guidelines for Socratic Seminar” and Peter Forbes “Some Thoughts About the Harkness Table”, “Introduction to Dialogue, Whole Thinking Retreat”


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