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Active Learning through Text-Based Discussion

How can discussion help students interpret Scripture? Ben Tameling of Grandville Calvin Christian Schools shares eight techniques for text-centered discussion, fueled by students’ own observations and questions.

How do students grow in reading and interpreting Scripture? By doing more of it. Like any skill, reading the Bible well takes practice.

That’s why Ben Tameling of Calvin Christian High School in Grandville, Michigan, has been shifting from a lecture-based class to an active-learning model, where he assists students in encountering Scripture for themselves. Ben’s classes are now centered on students reading together during class and then discussing their understandings as a small or large group. In one course, students read through the whole New Testament, while in another they read Joshua through 2 Kings. 

Ben has found the results encouraging. “The biggest encouragement I’ve had from reading whole books of the Bible at length is that, by and large, students want to read and are focused on it,” he observed. “Rarely do I see a student trying to sleep or look at something else. Attention spans might be shorter today, due to the prevalence of technology, but I see students actually wanting to read!” 

Ben uses direct instruction to introduce each book they study, but student inquiry drives most of the remaining class time. He uses a reader-version of Scripture as his class textbook to aid in deeper reading and note-taking. Ben has tables in his classroom instead of desks, which fosters collaboration and allows him to shift between smaller-group and larger-group collaboration.

Here are eight techniques Ben has been refining while implementing text-based discussion: 

1. Read Larger Chunks of Scripture

This technique is revolutionary, yet simple: Class time can be well-spent in reading Scripture aloud. Reading larger chunks in class ensures that students actually experience the breadth of God’s Word, which we cannot assume with homework. The book of James takes just thirteen minutes to read aloud, while half of I Chronicles can be read in thirty minutes. Hearing a book read dramatically can also help students’ understanding, while reading large portions helps students understand genre, context, and avoid common errors of interpretation. When we read whole books in just a couple sittings, students follow the plot, hear repeated themes, and notice stylistic differences between authors.

2. Don’t Write in Your Book

Learning to mark up a text is an important skill, and the Bible is no exception. But it can take a change of mindset for students to realize that owning your own copy of a well-marked text is superior to a “clean” unmarked book. Your marks will point you back to what is most crucial, even in years to come. Ask students to follow along in their own copy of the text when it is read aloud, either by a strong reader or an audio source. Teach them to make marks and notes in pencil while they listen. Since pencil is erasable, it allows them to improve their mark-up, as they learn the difference between helpful and unhelpful underlining. 

3. Teach Students How to Annotate

Students may struggle to know what to underline, so it takes learning and discernment to annotate well. Encourage students to limit the underlined words to only one or two items per paragraph. Teach them to mark the repeated or central words, to mark transitions, and to write notes or questions in the margins. Symbols like question marks, circles, asterisks, or numbers may help with annotating. Model the process by projecting your own Bible on the wall as you annotate or do samples together as a group so that students learn the process. Then circulate the class as students mark up the text to provide individualized coaching on how to better annotate, based on what you see.

4. Consider a “Reader’s Version” of Scripture

A reader’s Bible removes certain “helps” that often become enablers or distractors, like numbers, study notes, and section summaries. This allows students to find the natural breaks in the text and summarize sections themselves. The single column layout shows genre differences better, and the thicker paper is easier to mark, so there can be several educational advantages. Ben noticed that using a reader’s version reinvigorated his students’ reading. “Several remarked that the Bible felt less intimidating. This blew me away at first, but I began to see where students were coming from: All of the study notes, cross references, and footnotes end up distracting young people from actually reading,” he shared. See our resource sheet for more information on the varieties of reader’s Bibles available. 

5. Teach Students to Listen for Repeated Themes

By reading the whole New Testament in a single course, Ben’s students heard the repetition of “grace and peace” in each of Paul’s epistles, and they heard the differences in tone and emphasis between the four gospel accounts. Reading bigger chunks allows these connections to be discovered naturally—rather than simply being told in lecture what Matthew’s or Mark’s emphases were. “Keywords and phrases clue them into themes, patterns, and literary structure of the whole book,” Ben noted.

6. Ask Simple Questions to Begin Discussion

The Immerse reader’s Bible uses four basic questions for group discussion: 1. What stood out to you? 2. Was anything troubling or confusing? 3. What made you think differently about God? 4. How might this change the way we live? These four questions are usually sufficient to get a good conversation going, particularly when you coach students to record their own questions while reading and use those as follow-up questions.

7. Allow Student Questions to Guide Conversation

“Allowing students to immerse themselves in Scripture allowed me to let students’ observations and reactions drive the class. I still do a lot of planning to help introduce major concepts in biblical books, summarizing key learning targets, or putting together recaps to help students review. But students’ observations and reactions drove the class. Teenagers today want to feel empowered to ask hard questions of the Bible and of the Christian faith,” Ben noted. “I think they feel valued that I not only think they are capable of reading whole books, but I want to know what they think of it.”

8. Extend Learning Through Writing Assignments

Ask students to keep weekly journal entries to extend their thinking on the text beyond what is shared in discussion. “I can keep up with students as they read, dialoguing with them along the way and prodding them to keep asking great questions as they sought to connect the dots throughout the story,” Ben said. Journal entries may be beneficial as homework. Another variety of written homework, done before class discussion, is to ask students to record their questions on the text. These student-generated questions can then become the basis for class discussion.  

“Students need to understand the one big story, not just a bunch of isolated devotional texts,” Ben stated. “Otherwise, they are at risk of approaching the Bible with incomplete or mistaken assumptions about what it is and why God gave it to us.”


Our next article will feature content shared at our 2019 Bible Symposium, as Hamilton District Christian School High School teacher David Grills will share more ways to generate student questions and discussion based on Scripture.

If you would like more training on using greater active-learning in your Bible classroom, please contact Heidi Dean at .

Ben Tameling from Grandville

Students read through the whole New Testament in one course.

Teach students to mark repeated words, transitions, and questions.

Sitting around tables fosters collaboration.


Reader's Bible Resource Sheet

Resource sheet outlining several reader's Bible options available.


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