Modelling Great Discussion Skills Helps Students Be Better Communicators

Something’s missing…

Your students are getting pretty good at discussions. They’ve done 3 or 4 and they’re getting the hang of replying respectfully and sharing their ideas. But something’s missing, they just can’t seem to break out of the habit of saying “I agree…” their discussion skills just aren’t there yet. You want your students to go deeper in conversation, with variation in the types of comments, and new ways of challenging each other by disagreeing and building on each other’s ideas.

If this is the challenge you’re facing then you’ve come to the right place. We’re here to give you 4 ways that you can model great discussion skills that will make your students’ discussions more meaningful and transformative. Let’s get into it!

4 ways to model great discussion skills!

#1. Practice challenging respectfully.

Challenging ideas respectfully is something even adults need to practice. It’s a key communication skill that can open the conversation up and allow great ideas to come through. Here’s how you can model it:

Scaffold a debate. Have your class practice respectful challenges by setting them into two teams (we suggest smaller groupings, that will provide every student with some time to practice challenging). Have the groups/teams/individuals argue one side of the topic (choose this for them). Each team will be given a big list of ‘What/What if’ open-ended questions pertaining to the topic – half of the list should be full/completed questions, and the other half can be sentence stems (these will allow the students to put their own spin on the questions). All arguments for this debate should be provided as well so that students don’t need to prepare. This way they can relax and focus on the important part of the activity — practicing challenging respectfully. Have one team kick off the debate and they’ll be off to the races! This semi-competitive activity is fun! Even the quieter students won’t be able to help getting in on it.

Challenging your students to only use ‘What’ or ‘What if…’ questions during the debate will have them learning the best way to ask their peers questions in a respectful manner. Eventually preparing them for the real deal.

#2. Use a variety of sentence stems!

In a discussion, we’re not always challenging via a question. It’s important that students get the hang of using all kinds of different ways for responding to their peers during a verbal interactive discussion. Here are some of our favourites:

New idea sentence stems
Challenge sentence stems
Question sentence stems

Encourage students to challenge themselves to use a different sentence stem each time they reply to their peers. Share these with your students, use them as a reminder that diversifying their responses helps to make the discussion more interesting.

This is what some of the Teachers who use Parlay are saying about sentence stems:

#3. Set expectations for types of comments.

In an online discussion, teachers will often tell their students to comment on at least two other posts in the discussion. You can encourage them to differentiate their responses by asking them to:

  • Comment on one thing they found most interesting.
  • Ask a question about an idea their peer shared to prompt further discussion.
  • Give their classmate a piece of constructive feedback!

Bonus Tip!

You can also help to set these expectations by participating in the discussion as well. In Parlay, Teachers can comment on students’ posts. Use this function to model the types of comments you’d like to see your students sharing. Once the discussion is complete, have students look through the discussion to find your comments. After they’ve found them, have students share why they think your replies are helpful to making the discussion richer and more compelling.

#4. Model submissions in Parlay

If you have your discussions in Parlay we have lots of features built-in that can help you easily model great discussion skills. One of our favourite features for modelling communication skills is Model Submissions.

Here’s a great example that Timm Freitas (Garden of English) and Amanda Cardenas (Mud and Ink Teaching) shared about model submissions:

Here are some of the main ways teachers use it to model great contributions to the discussion:

  • Highlight exemplary contributions.
  • Bring attention to posts that are written well, or have great structure.
  • Get students to pay attention to a specific idea that was mentioned in the discussion, and or call attention to an idea that will be covered later in the unit/course.
  • Spotlight great examples of peer feedback and or respectful discussion.

Once your Parlay discussion has come to an end and you’ve chosen some of the best responses, make sure to take some time to go over the model submissions that you highlighted and explain to your students why you’re bringing attention to them. This feature helps teachers clearly communicate to students what they’re looking for – and gives students an achievable goal to work towards.

Alexis Wiggen’s uses model submissions to let students know, ‘not to overthink it’:


Those are all of our tips for how to model great discussion skills. These simple tips will take your students’ communication abilities to the next level, and will make discussions fun and more effective to run on a regular basis.

If you try any of these activities let us know how it goes! Make sure to reach out to us if you have any questions, just click the smiley face in the bottom right-hand corner. We look forward to hearing from you! Or find us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for more discussion-based tips.


  • We highly suggest checking out The Student Textbook. It’s a resource for setting students up for success with the best practices of discussion participation.