The Community of Enquiry and literacy development

Stephen Walshe thinks we should set aside time in school for ‘dialogue’ between children, as it can transform progress in the development of literacy.

Literacy Development through Dialogue

“To my taste the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. … Studying books has a languid feeble motion, whereas conversation provides teaching and exercise all at once” (Michel De Montaigne 1533-1592)

I do not believe that Montaigne is telling us to avoid reading books, but is saying that if we only read them and do not allow students to identify and engage in discussion, with the concepts, problems or ideas they bring up, we are not fully exercising their minds . And not doing this is doing them, students, a disservice.

Taking a position

Imagine a situation where students, younger or older, read a storybook, an essay or book and are asked to identify an aspect of the writing and take a position on it. If they only read it and then attempt to write about it, they only have their own thoughts to work with. Now imagine a situation where following the reading, students identify central concepts from the writing that interest or puzzle them, take the time to unpack the concepts together to ensure that they understand them, develop questions  based on those concepts and then, as a group, vote for the question they would like to discuss.

Discussion follows

The chosen question is then discussed in a Community of Enquiry, where students express their thinking, giving reasons for their thinking, listen to other students’ opinions, respond to students who agree and, more importantly, disagree with them. Over time, students engaging with text in this way, become better at reading for meaning and identifying central concepts in the text.

How better able will they now be to write about the text?

Dialogue and creativity

According to the Physicist David Bohm (1917 – 1992) dialogue is, “… a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s something creative”

This kind of creativity will take time to develop in school, and there may be situations where teachers do not have the time for everything that Bohm had in mind. In that case, teachers could modify the ideal and have concepts and questions prepared, that focus on a particular curriculum area. However, there must be time for students of all ages to engage in dialogue based on their own questions. After all, if we want to talk about being student-centered, then we need to provide time to give the learning over to students and provide time for students to talk about questions they have developed.

Deepening engagement with text

As we all know, some students do not engage very well with text. Yes, they read it, but they don’t really think while they are reading.  Then there are other students who engage to various degrees with text, and develop assumptions based on their interpretation of what they have read. Over time, using an approach based on dialogue can help students who do not engage with text well, to appreciate the importance of engaging with text and therefore improve literacy.

Moreover, storybooks or texts are usually related to our lives and provide a stimulus for engaging with topics of real-world significance to students. Therefore, if we provide time for a community dialogue around the text, there is a possibility that these life connections will surface, which will better help students engage with the text.

In the process, they will not only understand and empathize with the characters more deeply, but also draw connections to their own lives and beliefs, providing them with a space to surface and examine assumptions they may not be aware they hold.

When asked to write about the reading after taking part in a dialogue, students not only have their own thoughts and assumptions to work with, but, as Bohm suggests, “some new understanding . . . . something creative” may emerge.

Discussion and the habit of shared thinking

The Community of Enquiry, then becomes the shared thinking space which allows children to dig deeper, make real-life connections and engage more meaningfully with literacy, which in turn promotes literacy development.

We become better and better at what we practice, or to put it another way, we become what we do. Developing competencies, in any area of the curriculum, is not an act but a habit.

Therefore, helping students develop the habit of engaging in discussion of literacy topics based on concepts and questions they have developed not only helps them with literacy development, but is also a practice they will carry with them outside of school. And, who knows, it may create a love of literacy in children who do not otherwise meaningfully engage in literacy.


Stephen Walshe

Stephen is Co-Principal at the Fortune Kindergarten in Shanghai and Co-Direcotor of P4C China. He is an accredited Advanced P4C and Thinking Moves trainer.  Philosophy for Children, Communities and Colleges, (P4C) and the Community of Enquiry, provide both the pedagogy and the structure to develop ‘Constructive Confrontation’.



For more information on P4C and the Community of Enquiry please visit:

P4C China at: http://www.p4c.org.cn/en/index.aspx

DialogueWorks at: https://dialogueworks.co.uk/


Feature Image:  by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Support image:    by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay