As the lab prepares to start our fall book club, we’re thinking about how we can lead fun and enriching discussions every week. Sometimes group members arrive at a book club meeting with plenty of their own questions and reactions to the selected reading, and at these times the job of the moderator is simply to facilitate the “back and forth” of group discussion. This is usually the best case scenario for a book club. But sometimes group members need help getting the conversation started. Often the moderator’s facilitation skills and prepared discussion questions are the difference between a stimulating conversation and a dull review of the selected reading.
Before reviewing tips about preparing effective discussion questions, we should remember that the most important part of a successful book club is reading the selected material before each meeting. If group members are unable to complete the reading selections before scheduled book club meetings, it may be a sign that the reading schedule is too ambitious. Shorter reading selections or less frequent meetings may give everyone a chance to “get on the same page.”
Purpose of a Nonfiction Book Club
Reading for a book club has a different purpose than reading for an academic course. In the classroom, students are expected to master the information in assigned chapters, books, and articles. This type of reading often feels like work—because it is! Gaining knowledge through reading is a major part of academic work. And while book clubs also (hopefully) involve learning new things, acquiring new information is not the only goal.
Book clubs exist to make the reading process more social, interactive, and enjoyable. In addition to learning new information, group members should be prepared to share their thoughts and reactions to the selected reading. Sharing your point of view about the reading selection, and exploring others’ differing thoughts and perspectives, is the most rewarding part of book club participation for many readers.
The Role of the Moderator
As a moderator, your task is to facilitate this sharing process among group members. Your job isn’t to quiz group members to confirm they learned the right information, but to help members explore the meaning, implications, and impact of the selected reading.
The purpose of good discussion questions is therefore not to encourage consensus, but to invite differing perspectives and opinions. Don’t avoid disagreement, but instead explore why and how points of view differ between group members.
An effective moderator is prepared with thought-provoking discussion questions, but they are also attentive to participants during a book club meeting. Some group members will naturally feel more comfortable participating in a group discussion, whereas others may hesitate to contribute. As a moderator, you should pay attention to who is speaking and who isn’t, and create opportunities for everyone to share.
Tips for Developing Good Discussion Questions
After starting the book club meeting with a brief overview of the selected reading, moderators should be prepared to kick-start the conversation with prepared questions. But not all discussion questions are created equal.
Good discussion questions are open-ended, often starting with What, Why, or How? These are questions that don’t have simple answers, and they often provide opportunities for exploration, follow-up questions, and disagreement between group members.
If participants are hesitant to engage in group discussion, have them respond to a discussion question with a neighbor for 1-2 minutes in order to get the conversation started before opening it back up to the group.
Moderators prepare discussion questions during and after their own read-through of the reading selection. Big ideas, unexpected conclusions, and unanswered questions make great topics for group discussion. In addition to these questions raised by the text, here is a list of general questions that can generate group discussion:
- What is the most important conclusion made by the author?
- What is the most interesting point made by the author? (This isn’t necessarily the same as the most important point)
- What information was new to you? What information was familiar to you before reading?
- What personal, social, or societal implications are raised by the selected reading? What actions might be taken to address these implications?
- What actions or solutions does the author propose?
- In what ways did you strongly agree/disagree with points made by the author? What made you come to a similar/different conclusion than the author on those points?
- Identify terms that were unfamiliar to you and look up their definitions. Share these definitions and discuss how learning these new terms gave meaning to the text.
- Was there a particular passage that had a strong effect on you when you read it? Share it and describe its effect, and invite other readers to share their reactions.
- How would you describe the author’s writing style? What effect did the writing style have on you while you were reading?
Remember to Have Fun
Preparation will ensure you have a stimulating conversation, but remember to be flexible and have fun. When moderators force the group to follow a rigid agenda for group discussion, the book club will feel more like work than recreation. Focus more on strategies to encourage connection and openness between group members, and focus less on the destination you’d like the conversation to arrive at. If you prepare with this mindset, your book club will be an enjoyable learning experience that others will be eager to join.
Westfield Memorial Library (n. d.). Prompts for non-fiction reading group discussions. Retrieved from http://www.wmlnj.org/bookclubkits/generalquestionsnonfiction.asp