By Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder / Originally published on the Colorin Colorado website / October 8, 2014  

In the first two posts in our series about using Socratic Circles (or Socratic Seminars) with English language learners (ELLs), we provided an overview of the activity and its objectives and offered some ideas for how to do a close read of the text that will be the focal part of the activity – in this case, Paul Revere’s Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Now that you’ve prepared your ELLs, it’s time to implement the Socratic circle.

Note: This activity was prepared by co-author Sydney Snyder.

Getting Started

You can begin by explaining what a Socratic circle is and the purpose of the activity. Discuss the two different roles that students will have during the activity: dialogue participant and observer. Consider showing your students a video clip of students doing a Socratic circle, so they have a visual example of what the activity looks like.

Goal setting: Develop a goal setting sheet that students can use to set 2-3 goals for the Socratic circle activity. Review and model aspects of the goal sheet so that students understand the goals. Examples of the types of goals you can include are:

  1. I will use evidence from the text to support my answers.
  2. I will pose at least one question to the group.
  3. I will listen to participants carefully and comment on at least one of my classmate’s ideas.
  4. I will encourage others to speak by asking them to share their ideas.
  5. I will be open to changing my mind.
  6. I will ask questions that require students to think critically about the text.
  7. I will learn about the topic from many perspectives.

Sentence starters: Sentence starters will help ELLs participate in the discussion. Students will need opportunities using the sentence starters prior to the Socratic circle, so these starters should be incorporated into the small group work. (We’ve filled in a couple of sample responses.) As you begin with Socratic circles, consider providing students with just a few sentence starters that are most relevant to the text being analyzed. The table below offers some examples of sentence starters for questions and responses that students might use during a Socratic circle. For additional sentence starters that can support students asking for clarification, responding to the ideas of others, changing the subject, and expressing opinions, take a look at this document.

Questions for Paul Revere’s Ride Responses for Paul Revere’s Ride
How did the author convey a sense of urgency in the poem?Give an example of how Longfellow described Paul Revere.What kind of man was he?What is the author’s purpose in writing this text?How do you know?What do you notice about ______________? (e.g. author’s word choice)How is ____________ like _______________?How is _________ different from _________?

Compare the ____________ before and after the ________________.

What is your opinion of ________________?

Was it appropriate for ________________? Why or why not?

I think the main idea is that Paul Revere was an American hero because he worked hard to warn the farmers that the British soldiers were coming.I noticed that the rhythm of the poem was like the rhythm of a horse galloping.I agree with _____________ because _________________.I think the author is trying to _______________________ because s/he says _____________________.I predict that _______________________.I was confused about ___________________.I’d like to go back to what _________________ said about ___________________.I agree/disagree with _________________ because _______________________.


Socratic Circle and Pair Feedback

Grouping Students

Group students in pairs. Assign one to be the observer during the first round of dialogue and one to be the dialogue participant. The dialogue participants sit in an inner circle and the observers sit in an outer circle. Only the students in the inner circle speak during each round. Each round will last approximately 10 minutes, and during that time the dialogue participants ask each other questions and respond to the questions asked.

In establishing the groups, try to anticipate who will be your more vocal students, and balance those students between observer and participant roles so that each group will have a few vocal students. Create a checklist similar to the goal setting sheet that will allow observers to describe the activities of the dialogue participant. The observer should monitor such things as: type of participation (e.g., question posing, responding to questions, encouraging others to participate, agreeing/disagreeing with what was said) and use of text-based evidence.

Pair Feedback

After the first round of dialogue, students should return to their pairs to discuss feedback. When conferring in pairs, the student who was the dialogue participant should begin by commenting on his/her own participation using the goal sheet. Then, the observer can share what s/he observed. After about 3-5 minutes of pair work, students should switch roles, with the observer becoming the dialogue participant.

Focus for Dialogue

Depending on how you’d like to structure the activity, you could consider assigning a different focus to each dialogue group. For example, in discussing Paul Revere’s Ride, one group might have a dialogue about the author’s purpose and the discrepancy the poem has with historical fact. The other group might focus on features of the text. Another option is to give students the freedom to speak about whatever aspect of the poem interests them based on the questions that they developed.


Activity feedback: In order to have a sense of what it was like for students to participate in a Socratic circle and to adapt the activity for the next time you use a Socratic circle, you could ask students to complete an exit ticket at the end of class. You might want to ask the following types of questions:

  • In what ways did you participate in the Socratic circle?
  • What would have helped you participate more?
  • Was anything challenging for you about this activity? If so, what?
  • What was one new idea you had about Paul Revere’s Ride based on the activity?

Balancing participation: In getting started with Socratic circles, you probably will not want to place limits on participation. However, if participation is a concern, you can discuss the topic with the class after the first Socratic circle. You might ask the class how participation was balanced as a way to get them thinking about this issue. Have them brainstorm ways of encouraging more balanced participation (e.g., encouraging others to talk, recognizing if you are talking too much). You can also add specific goals to the goal sheets focused on balanced participation (e.g., I will speak at least 3 times during the discussion, I will speak only 3 times during the discussion).

We hope you will give the Socratic circle a try in your classroom. Don’t be discouraged if the first couple of times students are not as active as you would like. Continue to try out the activity, tweaking how you implement it. Please let us know strategies that work well and those that could be improved!