TIES TIPS Foundations of Inclusion

TIP #22: Planning for Whole Group Discussions

TIES Center, TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS).


In TIP #8, we introduced the high-leverage practices (HLPs) for inclusive classrooms. These practices are strategies that every teacher should know and use. HLP 1 addresses whole group discussions. Whole group discussions allow the students to ask and answer questions, building on what their peers contribute. Facilitating a whole group discussion requires more than simply asking a question to the class and watching the discussion unfold. Discussions must be carefully planned to ensure that all students can actively participate and meaningfully contribute to the conversation. This TIP will provide an example of how educators can work collaboratively to create more inclusive opportunities for all students, including students with significant cognitive disabilities, to actively participate in whole group discussions. 


Whole group discussions are a crucial part of any inclusive classroom. Murphy et al. (2009) state that students perform better when they have the opportunity to collaborate with each other, as opposed to working individually. Facilitating whole group discussions requires mindful planning and strategically designed supports (Swanson et al., 2019). 

Teachers and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can work collaboratively to ensure whole group discussions are inclusive and accessible. Wallace et al. (2021) provide four strategies to help promote a language-rich environment: modeling, expansion, wh-questions, and scaffolding. Read on to see how a classroom teacher and an SLP work together to plan for meaningful whole group discussions in a fifth grade social studies class. 


Mr. Carter wants to make his social studies class discussions more engaging and inclusive. He plans to provide differentiated articles to his students for his introductory lesson on civil rights. Using the information from these articles, Mr. Carter would like to facilitate a whole group discussion focused on rights and responsibilities of citizens in the United States. However, Mr. Carter does not feel confident in his ability to adapt a lesson that would accomplish this goal: Students will engage in meaningful discussion about the differentiation between rights and responsibilities reflected in the United States Constitution. 

He wants to ensure all of his students are able to engage in this discussion, including Carlos, a student who uses a speech-generating device (SGD), so he prioritizes his planning time with the speech language pathologist, Ms. Cardoso. During their collaboration time, Ms. Cardoso shares an article she recently read on creating language-rich environments (see Wallace et al., 2021 in resource list below). It includes four strategies: modeling, wh-questions, expansion, and scaffolding. They talk through each of the strategies and brainstorm ways to include Carlos in them. 


The first strategy is modeling, where Mr. Carter will provide an example of how to use a new word or concept prior to asking students to demonstrate their understanding. One concept that students will need to understand is “rights”. Mr. Carter plans to model this concept using the sentence “I have a right to be safe”. Together Mr. Carter and Ms. Cardoso brainstormed some fringe words to include on Carlos’s SGD, including “right”, “vote”, “work”, “happy”, “choice”, and also some nonexamples, such as “steal” and “lie”.

A green GoTalk9+ AAC device. On the top row is a button with an icon for "new comm page", a button for "help", and a button for "my turn". Below is a set of 9 icons in a 3x3 array. From left to right, top to bottom: Right, Vote, Work, Happy, Steal, Choose, Lie, Own property, Hurt others.

Wh- Questions

The next strategy is using wh- questions. Ms. Cardoso shares with Mr. Carter that it's important for students to not only answer wh- questions, but to also ask wh-questions. Carlos already has wh- words programmed on his SGD, but he tends to mix them up, which causes him a lot of frustration. To support his use of this strategy, Ms. Cardoso prepares some supplemental wh- visual support cue cards for Carlos. He can keep these cue cards on a ring which he stores in his desk. The what card has visuals of different objects and activities, such as people marching, a bus, and people voting. The who card has pictures of important people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. The where card has pictures of a church, Alabama, and Washington D.C., and the when card has pictures of a timeline, and a calendar with the year 1963. During the discussion, when Carlos raises his hand to participate, Mr. Carter will ask him if he has a question. Carlos can then ask a question by using his SGD to ask “when?” and then pointing to the words women and vote to ask “When did women receive the right to vote?

A landscape 4x6 laminated card on a binder ring. In the center is the word "who" along with a symbol representing "who" (a stick figure pointing to its head with a question mark on the face). On the upper left is a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. On the lower right is a picture of Rosa Parks.
A set of four laminated 4x6 cards on a binder ring. The first card shown says "What" at the top and in the middle has a symbol of a stick figure with their hands posed to the side, a questioning look on their face, and a red question mark to the right of their head. On the middle left is an image of a bus used in the freedom ride. On the upper right is an image of an individual voting at a polling station. On the lower right is an image of the March on Washington. Behind the "what" card is a "when" card with an image of a timeline, and a "where" card with an image of Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama on the upper right and a map of the United States with Alabama highlighted in red on the lower right. Behind this is the back of a card with no images visible.


The third strategy is expansion. Ms. Cardoso shares with Mr. Carter the importance of modeling for increasing communication for all students. Mr. Carter plans to restate contributions made by all of his students and expand upon them to model new vocabulary and complex syntactic structures. For example, if a peer in the class says “We have a right to say what we want” then Mr. Carter could restate the contribution by saying, “You’re right, we do have a right to freedom of speech. Do we have a responsibility as well related to free speech?” Similarly, if Carlos contributes “happy, right, voting, responsibility,” Mr. Carter will provide praise and then restate Carlos’s contribution by saying “Great work Carlos, the pursuit of happiness is a right, and voting is a responsibility.”


The final strategy is scaffolding. Mr. Carter is familiar with scaffolding in designing lessons and activities, but hasn’t considered its use for communication. Ms. Cardoso gives him a few practical applications. First, Mr. Carter can encourage generalization of the terms and concepts discussed in class by prompting students to make connections to their lives. He might ask students to bring artifacts to share with the class. For example, Carlos can bring a picture of himself going to the polling station with his grandfather. 

Second, Mr. Carter can promote reasoning by asking “why?”. When students provide a contribution, Mr. Carter can ask the student, or the class as a whole, to expand by answering “why?”. Mr. Carter can also encourage students to make predictions by asking them what they think will happen next. When discussing historical events, Mr. Carter may use a timeline. He can cut out the events and provide them to Carlos, out of order. Based on the class discussion, he can ask Carlos to make a prediction about the effect of an event on the timeline. 

Finally, Mr. Carter can provide choices to promote participation within the discussion. He can provide choices in the moment (for example, “What do you predict will happen next?” schools became integrated; schools stayed segregated) or he can have response cards available ahead of time. He might ask or prompt one of the students to ask Carlos if he agrees or disagrees with his peer’s contribution. Carlos can respond by selecting the appropriate response card. 


Everybody can meaningfully contribute to a whole class discussion with careful planning. In this scenario, Mr. Carter and Ms. Cardoso demonstrated how to collaborate as an interdisciplinary team to support the communicative competence of all students. The TIES 5-15-45 tool provides further guidance on working collaboratively to support inclusive classrooms.

Disclaimer: The information in this TIP is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this TIP are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.



  • Murphy, P. K., Wilkinson, I. A. G., Soter, A. O., Hennessey, M. N., & Alexander, J. F. (2009). Examining the effects of classroom discussion on students’ comprehension of text: A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 740–764.

  • Stehle Wallace, E., Senter, R., Peterson, N., Dunn, K. T., & Chow, J. (2021). How to Establish a Language-Rich Environment Through a Collaborative SLP–Teacher Partnership. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 004005992199069.

  • Swanson, E., Stevens, E. A., & Wexler, J. (2019). Engaging Students With Disabilities in Text-Based Discussions: Guidance for General Education Social Studies Clasrooms. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 51(4), 305–312.

TIPS Series: Tip #22, April 2021 

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as: 

  • Clausen, A. M., Johnson, H., & Wakeman, S. (2021). Planning for Whole Group Discussions (TIPS Series: Tip #22). University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert 

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