Teaching Strategy

Text-based Fishbowl

Community Inquiry
Grade Level


A strategy for organizing medium- to large-group discussions. Students are separated into an inner and outer circle. In the inner circle, or fishbowl, students have a text-based discussion; students in the outer circle listen to the discussion and take notes.


After reading


Fishbowl is an engaging and student-centered strategy that builds comprehension of complex texts while developing group discussion skills. In the inner circle—or “fishbowl”—students practice responding to multiple viewpoints related to a text’s central idea(s) and structure, author’s purpose, use of important words and phrases, etc. Observations from students in the outer circle provide insight into what makes for effective small-group discussions. Research supports the use of fishbowls as a particularly effective way to engage students with a range of abilities and in multiple settings.


  1. Choose a central text. The text can be read independently before class or with the class in the Close and Critical Reading phase.
  2. Instruct students to generate their own text-dependent questions prior to the Fishbowl. Answering these questions should require classmates to return to the text and locate specific textual evidence. Everyone should have a copy of the text to reference during the discussion.
  3. Select four or five students to join the fishbowl group. Only students in the fishbowl are allowed to talk. Have those students ask and answer their prepared text-dependent questions.
  4. Instruct the outer circle to remain quiet, observe and take notes on the content and process of the inner circle’s discussion. If you have paired students, have one take notes on the other’s performance using the peer tracking worksheet.
  5. The facilitator does not participate in the discussion, but poses questions along the way to prompt deeper discussion and to make sure students’ comments are relevant to the text.
  6. Rotate students in and out of the fishbowl throughout the course of the discussion. Set up a procedure ahead of time so students know to expect this rotation.
  7. Wrap up the fishbowl with a discussion about the activity. Students can use their notes from the outer circle to highlight strengths of the discussion and make suggestions for ways to engage each other more meaningfully.

English language learners

This strategy is appropriate for intermediate English language learners (level three or above). Fishbowl is a low-stakes, low-anxiety strategy with high verbal communication structure. English language learners may need extended practice identifying “look-fors” and other characteristics of meaningful text discussions. Consider offering students the option to record the dialogue, so they may listen to it more than once.

Connection to anti-bias education

The Fishbowl structure lends itself well to discussions of complex texts and challenging topics of cross-cultural significance. By providing all students both a speaking and listening role and a stake in the discussion, Fishbowl can help build an inclusive and supportive learning environment. The observation aspect of the activity gives students a forum for establishing appropriate ways to participate in discussions. If used on a consistent basis, Fishbowl discussions can establish boundaries and norms critical in anti-bias communication.

Add to an Existing Learning Plan
    Group of adults listening to one person speaking.

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