During-Reading Response: Notepassing Discussion

Get all students to participate in class discussion by taking advantage of the fun of writing and passing notes

Reader response compels readers to interact with the text and makes visible for readers and their teachers the depth of text comprehension. This is the fifth in a series on scaffolding writing-to-learn by teaching a variety of reader response strategies before, during, and after reading.

The Problem with Class Discussion

Thirty students in the classroom, all of them participating in an academic discussion … an unattainable goal? Most teachers acknowledge that when they hold class discussions, four or five students typically participate, and always the same four or five students. And it can take prodding and questions from the teachers to entice those few students to contribute to the conversation.

Discussion can be defined as students talking about a topic or a text without input or interjection from the teacher, a description most teachers would agree that classroom discussions do not fulfill. How can teachers increase student participation in discussions? And if a teacher can successfully encourage all students to participate in a text discussion, there are still problems:

  • How do they find time for 30 students to discuss one topic?
  • If student groups are discussing simultaneously, how can the volume of talk be contained?
  • How do teachers discourage students from interrupting each other?
  • How do teachers keep adolescents from making inappropriate comments to those whose discussion points are not considered accurate or clever?
  • How can students have the time to construct responses to others?

The Solution

Adolescents love to write and pass notes—secret missives meant for the eyes of one person at a time. And notes allow time to plan a response and the knowledge that the response will be read and considered. Also, the fact that they do not need to look someone in the eye when making a response is comforting to many adolescents. Teachers can effectively employ this technique in their classrooms through a during-reading discussion response strategy: notepassing.

Discussion Lessons

The first step before holding small-group discussions is to teach students how to begin with comments or observations that will initiate discussion. When students merely repeat facts from the text, there is nothing to deliberate. However, when students use facts, quotes, ideas from a text to generate questions, inferences, predictions, or connections, a discussion can ensue—generating conversation by saying, “When the article stated , it made me think of .”

The next steps are to teach ways to develop and extend a discussion when participants agree and when participants disagree.

When students agree with the person initiating the discussion, they typically respond, “I agree,” “Me too,” or “That’s what I was going to say,” and the discussion ends there. Students need to brainstorm ways to agree, but to also add comments that extend and continue the conversation, such as I agree AND also thought about… (another example from the text, another text, or from life).

Students also need alternatives to “That’s not right.” Adolescents typically blurt out comments or employ body language that shows others that their ideas were not considered particularly respected, correct, or smart. Even more importantly, students need to learn tactics to respectfully disagree while effectively continuing and adding to the discussion, such as I think that is true; HOWEVER, I was also thinking…. Or That is a good thought, BUT did you consider…? Once methods of developing discussions have been taught, students are ready to participate in notepassing.

Notepassing Directions for Students (given orally)

  1. Divide into groups of three [the best number for this activity. If there needs to be 1-2 groups of four, those groups may make another pass—see #6.] After you divide into groups, there is to be no talking.
  2. Each student is to individually read the article (or textbook chapter or the next novel chapter).
  3. On a separate sheet of paper, write a two-minute response to the text. Think of something meaningful, significant, or interesting to write about—a good discussion point. Write or print legibly so what you write can be read by others. Then sign your first name. [When the timer signals two minutes, the teacher tells students to finish the sentence they are currently writing and sign their names.]
  4. Within your triad, pass your paper to the right. Write a two-minute response to the comments made by the person whose paper you receive, continuing the conversation as we discussed. Then sign your name.
  5. Again pass the papers to the right within your triad. Read the two responses. Write a two-minute response to the comments on the paper you receive, continuing and extending the conversation started by the first two responders; then sign your first name. [When the timer signals two minutes, the teacher tells students to finish the sentences they are currently writing and sign their names.]
  6. Return the note to its original owner who will read all the responses. [During this time, groups of four can pass and write one more time if the teacher wishes.]
  7. Your group should now talk about insights or points made in their comments.
  8. THEN each triad prepares to share with the class:
    • The different topics of your “conversations”
    • One point about the text on which you all agree and think is important

Examples of Notepassing Responses

Three different conversations held by a sixth grade triad on a social studies article Shattered Lives by Kristin Lewis in Scholastic Scope, January 2015:

Group 1— Conversation 1

Refugees lives are, well, shattered because of crises, like the Syrian Refugee crisis, happening around the world. For example Dania went from a “spacious four-room home with a beautiful garden that bloomed with olive trees” (6) to hiding in a hole during attacks to having to flee the country to a little garage.
– Alex

I agree that their lives are shattered. Refugees go from having a normal, everyday life, school, friends to fleeing, escaping missiles and the challenge of surviving. Can you imagine? They have to leave everything they know behind and flee for their lives.
– Ava

I totally agree with Alex that refugees get shattered by civil wars and fighting between countries. I agree that one day your life is normal, and then the next day it all changes. And instead of being able to go to school with your friends, you have to try to stay alive every day. And, as well, you never know when the last time you’ll see your best friend or family or have a home.
– Evan

Group 1— Conversation 2

In the article, “Shattered Lives,” I can make a connection to the three other books I have read this year. In all three books there is a refugee family fleeing due to wars and bad things happening. For example, Dania and her family have to flee the country due to a civil war in her country just like in the books I read.
– Evan

Hi, Evan, I completely agree. In the books A Long Walk to Water and Refugee people have to flee due to wars and violence. The books are rather similar. Also, in Refugee, Mahmoud has to leave because of the Syrian civil war, just like Dania in the article.
– Alex

Yes, refugees face danger and violence. Some face dictators, missiles, and even Hitler. They are forced to flee to just survive. I agree with you, Evan, that all the books we have read have the connection of fleeing and violence and people are forced to become refugees or stay and risk their lives. Refugees face many unimaginable dangers.
– Ava

Group 1— Conversation 3

Refugees are not alone. Many organizations, like the UNHCR, Save the Children, and UNICEF dedicate their lives to helping refugees. For example, Save the Children is working with a government to make sure all refugee children receive an education, even when they have to go to school in shifts.
– Ava

Dear Ava, I totally agree with you that refugees are not alone. For the same reason as the UNHCR, there are sometimes just people who have sympathy for refugees and donate to organizations that help out with refugees.
– Evan

Hey, Ya’ll, I agree with both of you. Organizations like UNHCR and UNICEF are helping with many things like education, food, water, supplies, medicine, and even counseling services. I think they are helping in a great way and are making a large impact on many refugees’ lives. Hopefully, one day those organizations will be able to reach all refugees.
– Alex

An example of one of the conversations written by ELA students, responding to “The History Teacher” by Billy Collins:

Group 1— Conversation 1

In the beginning of the poem you can see that this history teacher cares about his students very much, for he even explains that the brutal Ice Age was only a “chilly age” where everyone wore sweaters. Although in the fifth stanza it explains how the kids treat others on the playground. If the teacher cares as much as I believe he does, why is he so oblivious?
– Emily

I think this is a very good point because of the interpretation of the poem’s tone. I did not notice how the teacher was very concerned with his student’s innocence yet still allowed the treatment they receive from fellow students.
– Megan

I see what you mean—why shield them from the reality of the past but allow them to negatively impact the future? If he had told them the harsh truth, maybe they wouldn’t be so oblivious to what could happen.
– Cristal

Advantages of Notepassing

After participating in this activity, students were asked to share the advantages they noticed.

  • There was time to think before “blurting out”—time to reflect on answers.
  • You can look back to what someone said.
  • I could revise what I said before passing.
  • Everyone has a turn.
  • I could jot down thoughts before forgetting.

After participating in this activity in their classrooms, teachers were asked to share the advantages that they noticed. These were some of their observations:

  • Everyone participates; in typical discussions only three to five students participate, and it’s always the same ones and usually in response to questions I asked.
  • There were none of the typical non-verbal reactions, i.e., eye-rolling.
  • Taking turns is built into the activity.
  • The room is quiet even when 10 group conversations are being held.
  • When writing for two minutes, there is more urgency to start writing, and when students “finish” and see that others are still writing, they tend to add more to what they wrote.
  • Usually students do not write inappropriate comments—there is something about committing to writing.
  • Students are writing comments for other readers, an authentic audience, and an audience other than the teacher.

Notepassing Across the Curriculum

Notepassing can be used as a reader response strategy in any discipline and anywhere there is a catalyst for reflection. Readers can use those reflections to begin discussions with other readers:

  • Poetry, novels, short stories, plays, and informational texts of any length in ELA classes;
  • Textbook, articles, visuals (visual literacy), in social studies;
  • Textbook chapters, articles, or experiments (“reading” an experiential text) in science class;
  • Mathematics concepts or problems;
  • Musical scores, lyrics, or listening to a musical composition (another experiential, or aural, text);
  • Reading visual texts such as anatomy charts, articles, and textbook chapters in health class;
  • Artwork as visual texts in art class.


As a during-reading response, notepassing, similar to other response strategies, causes readers to stop and reflect on what they read. The interactive nature of notepassing begins conversations between readers, and considering text in a collaborative manner promotes deeper and more critical reading.

With notepassing, groups of students have developed a basis for oral conversation, and they discover points to share with the class. If a writing activity follows the text reading, triads have rehearsed their thoughts about the text in a low-stakes activity.