Discussion Questions, Pt. 1

Sometimes the questions created by publishers for book discussion are a bit odd. They can read too much like essay questions from college literature classes. Often, they are so specific that they fail to inspire interest. Individual readers might well consider such questions to help clarify their thoughts before they attend book group, but for your meeting, I’d take another course. It’s not hard to compose your own discussion questions. This can be done individually by a facilitator or through the shared efforts of the group.

As the leader or facilitator of your group, you are best suited to understand which questions your group will respond to and which will get no reaction or lead to trouble. Are there red flag issues that inspire inflammatory talk, knee-jerk reactions, or long-winded personal stories from some of your participants? If so, you’ll know not to lead the discussion in those directions.

Do they handle judgments about the overall quality of the book gracefully or respond with bland platitudes? Do some of your readers take extreme, polarizing positions that make everyone uncomfortable when asked for a general evaluation? If either of these is the case, tailor questions of judgment toward specific aspects of the work instead of phrasing them broadly.

Do your readers like to discuss literary devices and other classroom topics, or do they consider such discussion too lofty and academic? If so, you might avoid use of literary jargon, using plain language as a back door to some of the same topics.

If your group prefers a democratic free-for-all instead of one discussion leader, or if you are the facilitator and are unsure about which aspects of the book they want to discuss, you can use it as a great icebreaker. Pass out slips of paper, and ask each reader to write down one or more questions or topics that are most on their mind after finishing the book. Read them aloud once without interruption, then work them into a coherent discussion, making sure to address at least one of the contributions from each reader.

This is the first post in a series about creating discussion questions. In future entries in this series, I’ll give you ideas about what questions work well to get at different aspects of the book. In the meanwhile, I’d love to see what you think about discussion questions. Does your group use them? Do you like the questions that come with the books or find them problematic? Have you written your own?

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On... Fantasy Fiction and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups.

3 Comments on "Discussion Questions, Pt. 1"

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  1. bmead@readinggroupchoices.com' Barbara says:

    great post! Yes, some publishers’ questions are too academic and stiff. My group reads them and uses them only as “jumping off” points. The questions guide and help members focus on themes and topics that relate to their lives.

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