The social studies teacher asks his class to name a few causes of the Civil War. However, instead of a discussion on reasons for the war, the students, almost to a child, reply by parrotting the text's detailed information on Civil War battles.

The subject and students may differ, but the scene is one that occurs daily in classrooms across America. While students usually don't have problems with the decoding involved in reading, reading comprehension and critical thinking are another matter, a reading workshop learned Friday.Donna Alvermann, University of Georgia associate professor of reading education, used the Civil War example at the 23rd annual conference of the Utah Council of the International Reading Association. It continues Saturday at the Salt Lake Hilton.

She said the key to improving comprehension and critical thinking is classroom discussion, but often that is less than ideal or never occurs. In fact, she reported, a survey of seventh-graders revealed that 45 percent of them said they never discussed the reading material.

In one common but less-than-ideal method, which Alvermann called the Wheel of Questions, the teacher throws out questions from the text. "The teacher knows the answers, the kids know the teacher knows the answers, so the kids don't bother responding," she said.

Another method is the bull session. "This is where everyone thinks he knows the answer. No one is in control, and no one listens to anyone," she said.

The middle ground between the two teaching approaches, called the dialectical session, where there is give and take between class members and the teacher, is best, but it requires careful planning, she said.

Alvermann said this method requires teachers to spend a lot of time discussing story background, vocabulary, structure of the text and using structured activities while reading.

With what Alvermann calls a discussion web, the teacher asks a question. Each child finds evidence to support either the "yes" or "no" response to the question.

Then the child is paired with another. They discuss the evidence that can support either a "yes" or "no" response. After a specific time, the pair then joins two other students and the four go over their findings and try and reach a consensus. When time is called, a group spokesman discusses the group's feelings with the class.

Alvermann said the discussion web is a good way to draw all participants into the discussion, thus increasing comprehensive and critical thinking. However, she added, limits must be set because "kids will talk as long as you let them."

In a related workshop, Granite teachers who use the Deseret News in their classroom demonstrated how lessons on problem solving, self-directed and independent learning, in-depth study, values clarification, quantitative differences could be developed around the newspaper.

Marlene Woolley described how students in her gifted and talented class have researched freedom of the press and censorship after reading about the furor over Salaman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses."

Her students are analyzing newspaper editorials and then writing responses as letters to the editor, drawing cartoons focusing on a specific value and talking about life in the 21st century.