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Literature Circles Build Excitement for Books!

Literature circles are one of the hottest trends in language arts teaching. Two experts in the field offer insights and advice about using this instructional strategy. Included: Valuable resources for teachers who want to learn more about using literature circles in their classrooms.

"I love it! The kids love it! I get goose bumps when I walk around the room and hear the excitement about books!" wrote one teacher in a recent listserv posting. That teacher was writing about literature circles, one of the most popular trends in language arts instruction.

Katherine L. Schlick Noe, Ph.D., associate professor at the School of Education at Seattle University, told Education World why this teaching approach is so effective: "Literature circles offer students a chance to be readers and writers, to apply the literacy skills that they are learning."

Noe, who has studied and worked extensively with literature circles, has compiled The Literature Circles Resource Center. She is also the coauthor, with Nancy J. Johnson, of Getting Started With Literature Circles (Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1999) and the coeditor, with Bonnie Campbell Hill and Nancy J. Johnson, of Literature Circles and Response (Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1995).

What are Literature Circles?

According to Harvey Daniels, author of the book Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom (Stenhouse Publishers, 1994), literature circles are small, temporary discussion groups of students who have chosen to read the same work of literature. Each member agrees to take specific responsibilities during discussion sessions. The circles meet regularly, and the discussion roles change at each meeting. When the circle finishes a book, the members decide on a way to showcase their literary work for the rest of the class.

Daniels points out that community book-discussion groups, which have become popular across the United States, follow the same format. He adds, however, "the formalized, in-school version of this activity is barely a decade old."

Discussion Roles

Daniels believes in introducing literature circles by using predefined roles that students take turns fulfilling. Although the terminology used to name the roles may vary, the descriptions remain similar. Pam Chandler, a sixth-grade English, reading, and social studies teacher at Sequoia Middle School in Redding, California, defines the roles her students take on in literature circles in this way:

  • Artful artist uses some form of artwork to represent a significant scene or idea from the reading.
  • Literary luminary points out interesting or important passages within the reading.
  • Discussion director writes questions that will lead to discussion by the group.
  • Capable connector finds connections between the reading material and something outside the text, such as a personal experience, a topic studied in another class, or a different work of literature.
  • Word wizard discusses words in the text that are unusual, interesting, or difficult to understand.

Both Chandler and Noe agree that modeling the various roles within a small group in front of the whole class is an effective way of teaching students how those roles allow the group to function. Chandler says that it usually takes one and a half to two weeks for students to learn how to handle the group discussion.

When the students are comfortable with the group-discussion format, the formal use of roles can be discontinued. Noe told Education World, "None of the teachers with whom I've worked used them for long." She explains that the roles "have the potential of undermining students' natural conversations" and says that the chapter about discussion in her book Getting Started With Literature Circles focuses on alternatives for teachers who want students to learn to discuss without roles.

The Teacher's Role

Chandler believes that when students are able to conduct a literature circle meeting on their own, the teacher should drop out of the group. "The whole purpose of literature circles is for students to discuss literature with their peers," she wrote in an article published in the middle school newsletter of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "Literature circles should be an arena for students to explore literature together. The discussions should not be controlled by an adult."

Noe does not completely agree. "For the teachers with whom I've worked, I would say that student independent management of their own groups is not necessarily an end product," she told Education World. "Many teachers do work toward that end, and many do not -- all for their own reasons."

Noe offered this explanation for the different approaches of two teachers: "For example, although her students were definitely able to carry on literature circle discussions on their own, middle school teacher Janine King found that she gained such valuable assessment information from observing the groups that she couldn't give that up. What worked best for her was having one group meet at a time while she sat nearby and took anecdotal notes. Intermediate teacher Lori Scobie, in her first year of teaching when we worked together on literature circles, had all groups meet at once while she roamed among them. That decision came not from an overarching goal that her students run their literature circles independently, but from a more basic challenge -- keeping the other students productively occupied while she met with one group."

Heterogeneous OR Homogenous Groups?

Daniels believes that students in literature circles should not be grouped according to reading ability, and Noe agrees. "The greatest benefits come as students talk about the books they're reading with others," Noe told Education World.

"Even students who have difficulty reading every word of a book can learn a great deal from that book when given an opportunity to share insights in a group," Noe continued. "The collaboration of the group can be a powerful part of the comprehension process."

Chandler disagrees. "I have found that students of lesser ability are not about to speak out for fear of embarrassment if they are grouped with students of greater ability," she told Education World.

Before grouping her class into literature circles, Chandler meets individually with each student to discuss the student's reading ability. She and the student also discuss how frustrating it would be to be in a small group with others whose reading ability differs greatly from the student's own.

After the meetings, Chandler asks students to write down the names of three students they would like to be grouped with in a literature circle. She finds that students generally specify at least one classmate whose reading ability is similar to their own. She then sets up the groups on the basis of both the student requests and her own assessment, keeping the range of reading ability within each circle to about two grade levels.

Which Age Group?

Daniels believes that literature circles can be used successfully for students of all ages, from primary grades through college. Noe says that she has observed teachers and students in literature circles from first grade through high school.

"Of course, many aspects of literature circles differ widely from grade to grade," Noe told Education World. "For example, high school students are far more adept at in-depth analysis of the books they read than are first graders."

Noe continued: "But I've listened in on some amazingly insightful discussions with beginning readers too. I would say that students at different ages get different benefits from literature circles. But everyone can get the most important benefit -- building a personal connection with and deeper understanding of literature in collaboration with others."

Chandler told Education World that "the best discussions will occur with students of middle school age and beyond." She explained that "in order for students to be able to enjoy fairly sophisticated discussions, they must be able to think beyond the words on the page."

Chandler went on to say, however, "This does not mean that it is not beneficial for younger kids to experience literature circles. It just means that teacher expectations should be appropriate to the age of the students." She also noted that literature circles would be "especially appropriate for gifted children of third grade or so and above."

An Effective Tool For At-Risk Students

Can literature circles help improve the reading skills and enjoyment of at-risk students such as ESL (English as a second language) students, poor readers, or reluctant learners?

"The answer is a thunderous 'Yes!'" Noe told Education World. "The power of working together to make meaning cannot be underestimated for challenged readers, whether their challenges are related to language, learning, or motivation."

Chandler's experience confirms this. "I will not tell you that I have had 100 percent success in getting all kids to fully participate in literature circles," she said, "By the end of the year, my kids are reading, and not just reading, but they are motivated to read."

Chandler added that she sees the largest growth in motivation and enjoyment among the more challenged students. "I have documented this in the last several years by using multiple assessments of reading ability," she said. "Many aspects of literature circles offer natural support for at-risk students. Those aspects include choosing great books with real characters working their way through real lives; reading the books with support from partners, volunteers, or tutors, a recording of the book, or a resource teacher; talking about books with other readers -- confirming what you understand and adding your own insights; writing about books; and extending understanding through artistic response."

"With this multidimensional approach to reading, less able students have more opportunities for success," concluded Noe, who illustrated her point with a personal experience:

Once, when observing a group of intermediate students discussing a novel set during the Revolutionary War, Noe was challenged by the teacher to pick out the one student in the group who was a struggling reader who spent time with the resource teacher.

"I couldn't," she said. "Each of the students demonstrated a passionate response to the book, offering both personal insights and well-supported evidence from the text. The discussion was lively, informative, and heated."

Giving Students a Choice

"The most central principle of literature circles is student choice," Noe told Education World, "building deeper understanding and more personal response through selecting the books that each student wants to read. ... If the goal of literature circles is to build understanding and response in collaboration with others, then student choice needs to be honored."

Chandler agrees that students should have a part in choosing what books they read. For that reason, she tries to group students into literature circles by ability, so that each circle can choose a book appropriate for its reading level. "Students appreciate the fact that they are given books to choose from that are of an appropriate level for their reading ability," she told Education World.

A Highly Adaptable Teaching Method

Perhaps what makes the literature circle such an effective teaching approach is that it's highly adaptable. "I learned early on that there are as many ways of structuring literature circles effectively as there are teachers and students eager to try," Noe told Education World.

She added that there is no recipe for using literature circles successfully. "Teachers have to begin wherever they are and look for a next step," Noe said.

"There are too many people eager to tell teachers how to teach," she continued. "I firmly believe that teachers must trust themselves and their students, and find what works for them. So although a recipe for literature circles doesn't exist, my professional mission is to help teachers find lots of possibilities."

Chandler has this advice for teachers who want to try literature circles in their classrooms: "Teachers who try this technique should try to pair up with a colleague or a group of colleagues who have either used literature circles before or who are trying them for the first time in order to support each other. ... Discussing successes as well as difficulties encountered with others will help teachers to be successful in using this strategy."

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Article by Mary Daniels Brown
Education World®
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Updated 12/15/2015