Literature Circles

In literature circles, students come together to discuss and respond to a book that they are reading at the same time. Students use their experiences to create meaning, make connections, and have lively discussions about the book.
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How Can You Make It Happen?

The Foundation:

It is critical to give students many opportunities, from the first days of the school year, to respond to literature in a variety of ways. It is especially important to get students talking or writing in response to literature as a whole class, in pairs, and in informal small groups. The simple strategy of consistently ending a shared read-aloud time by having students share their thoughts, responses, feelings, and questions, will pay off tremendously when students are asked to participate in literature circles.

When are students ready to form successful discussion groups? Below are some questions that Joanne Hindley and her colleagues use to help them determine students are ready.

  • Do I know my students' reading histories?

  • Do they know each other as readers?

  • Do they listen to each other for book recommendations?

  • Do they talk informally about books?

  • Have they read enough individual books to know how to choose a book to read together?

  • Do they know how to write about books in a way that leads to good booktalks?

  • Do they treat each other with respect? (Hindley)

For these and other practical ideas for getting students to respond to literature, see Joanne Hindley's excellent book, In the Company of Children, pages 125-134, especially. Lucy Calkins, in The Art of Teaching Reading (pgs. 404-5), also lists skills and traits of students who are ready for book clubs.

Getting Started:

Introduce the idea, structure, and function of literature discussion groups when you and your students are ready to start. Harvey Daniels, in his book Literature Circles, provides ideas and step-by-step instructions for how to begin, including more detailed scaffolding for students who have little experience in collaborative learning. He also includes a "quick training" method for students who have plenty of experience working together.

One effective way for teachers to introduce this strategy is to work closely with one group to get started, and allow the rest of the students to watch the group in a "fishbowl" experience. The rest of the class watches the group as it engages in a discussion about a book. The teacher intervenes when necessary to keep the thoughtful discussion going. With the large group, the teacher discusses effective strategies that the small group is using to continue and expand the discussion.

Another strategy is to form one group at a time, the teacher working with each one to get it started and working independently. When the first group is functioning productively, the next group can be started. This allows the teacher to spend quality time with each group during the critical forming phase and ensures that each group gets off to a productive start. Lucy Calkins describes a teacher using this strategy and provides other scaffolding strategies for newly formed groups in The Art of Teaching Reading (Pages 398-9).

Forming Groups and Selecting Books:

Groups can be formed for a short term, coming together for one book and then disbanding, while other groups can be kept together for a longer period of time, reading several books together. Both approaches have their advantages. Short-term groups allow students to interact with many different readers, styles, and points of view. Long-term groups allow students to get to know each other better and to develop deeper connections.

There are differing degrees of student choice that can be allowed in forming literature circles. Each group can choose a particular book it wants to read, or teachers can choose the books and let students sign up for the one they want to read.

In groups where students choose the book they would like to read, they usually have more ownership in the group and the chosen book. Even when students select their own books, teachers usually guide students, in varying degrees, in making their choices. Some teachers select the books when groups are first forming, or limit the choices from several preselected groups, maintaining some control of the quality and readability of the books. As students become more independent, they may become more capable of self-selecting all of their books.

Teachers can also choose groups for students, using information from a written reflection on themselves as readers. Lucy Calkins discusses forming groups in more detail in The Art of Teaching Reading (pp. 397-399). Most teachers maintain some degree of control over group membership, considering such issues as compatibility between group members, reading abilities, variety of group experiences, personalities, and such.

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