Whether they are called literature discussion groups, book clubs, reading response groups, or reading clubs, members of literature circles come together to discuss and respond to a book that they are reading at the same time. Often they are modeled after adult book discussion groups, although they may be more structured to provide scaffolding for students. In some models, roles are assigned to members of the group to help the group function more productively and remain focused on the chosen book or related topic. In literature circles, students use their experiences to create meaning, make connections, and have lively discussions about the book. The emphasis is on thoughtful dialogue in order to share experience and ultimately come to a deeper understanding of the piece of literature.
In literature discussion groups, students hone their communication and critical-thinking skills by coming together with peers to respond to literature. Good readers use a variety of strategies to construct meaning from what they read, such as predicting what will happen next or connecting what they are reading to their own experience. Literature discussion groups help readers develop and practice these skills.
The overall objectives are for students to deepen their comprehension skills, construct meaning together as a group, debate and challenge each other, and ultimately connect with books on a deeper level. Students who are struggling readers often benefit by being in heterogeneous literature circles. Collaboration with more advanced peers provides modeling of comprehension strategies and critical thinking, as well as providing motivation for students to stretch their abilities in order to meet the group's expectations. Literature discussion groups can even have larger, more comprehensive benefits for the classroom community and for a student's lifelong learning. Harvey Daniels, in his book Literature Circles, discusses these types of benefits:
...literature circles have the potential to transform power relationships in the classroom, to make kids both more responsible for and more in control of their own education, to unleash lifelong readers, and to nurture a critical, personal stance toward ideas. (Daniels, p.31)
Many teachers wait to start book clubs or discussion groups until students have some shared experience with books. Some teachers wait until January or February, after students have built their skills of responding to books, talking about books, sharing their thoughts and reflections, and listening to each others' opinions with respect. Yet the work of building toward independent book discussions should start from the first days of school when you allow students ample opportunity to respond to literature in a variety of ways.
Initiating these literature discussion groups a bit later in the school year gives students time to build these skills, gives the teacher time to get to know students a bit better, and gives students time to get to know each other. A respectful and safe classroom community is essential. Literature circles, like all cooperative grouping strategies, depend on students who respect each other, listen to one another, and feel safe enough to share their thoughts and feelings.
Literature circles generally range from three to six members who get together to choose and discuss a book. Some teachers choose to establish groups that are short-term and disband after the book is completed, while others form long-lasting groups, with members staying together to read and discuss many books.
Groups of students gather together in different areas of the classroom, perhaps in a comfortable corner on the floor, at a table, or simply in several chairs gathered together. Students discuss their books, with their books in hand or nearby, engaging every member of the group. Students use the books to refresh their memories, back up their observations or points, read a pertinent excerpt, or point out something they noticed to the group. Students also use the books to raise any questions they may have, while the group searches the text for possible answers.
Some literature circles have students take on different roles within the group, such as leading the discussion and keeping the group on track, identifying key passages and sharing them with the group, or finding connections between the text and the outside world. The teacher is on the periphery, helping to redirect the group's focus when necessary, or even as an occasional participant contributing thoughts or reactions about the book. The groups are not directed or lead by the teacher, as the primary voices are the students'.
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.
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).
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.
Many teachers using literature circles assign students specific roles to provide a degree of structure to the groups, at least at the beginning stages of group formation. These roles are rotating, with students eventually taking a turn at each role as they proceed through several books or groups. Harvey Daniels, in his book Literature Circles, discusses in detail several different possible roles. Daniels includes sample role sheets with specific role descriptions, sample discussion questions, and other support available for group members. Some of these roles include:
Discussion Director - this student's job includes keeping the discussion moving along, productive and focused.
Literary Luminary - this student highlights particularly important parts of the text, perhaps reading them aloud to the group and discussing.
Questioner - this student develops questions to start or continue a thoughtful discussion about the book.
Connector - this student looks for connections between the text and the outside world and contributes this perspective to the discussion.
Illustrator - this student's job is to draw some type of illustration related to the reading, perhaps an important scene, and bring that to the discussion. The picture should convey an idea or feeling from the reading.
Key to engendering good discussions in literature circles is for students to be adept at asking, and answering, a wide variety of questions at different cognitive levels. Strategies that encourage questioning and discussion at the higher levels of Bloom's Taxonomy will lead to much more successful, in-depth, and meaningful literature groups. The level of questions determines the depth of student understanding as well as their level of engagement with the literature.
Junior Great Books suggests a strategy called "shared inquiry" to structure book discussions. In this strategy, there are three general types of questions: factual, interpretive, and evaluative. Factual questions have one correct answer that can be supported by evidence from the text. Interpretive questions are more open-ended; they can have several answers that can be supported by evidence from the text. Evaluative questions ask the reader to evaluate something from the text based on their own knowledge or experience.
The following are some examples of each type:
What are the names of Harry Potter's two best friends?
What kind of creature is Charlotte in Charlotte's Web?
How does Harry feel about his fame throughout the wizard community?
Why does Charlotte try to help Wilbur?
Put yourself in the role of Harry Potter. What would you do differently?
How do you feel about the way Charlotte's Web ended?
The shared inquiry strategy used by Junior Great Books focuses on interpretive questions, as these are open-ended, yet call for supporting evidence from the text that is being read. This requires students to back up their reasoning by pointing directly to evidence from the text.
Further, divergent and higher-level questions expand the discussion rather than limit it. Factual questions elicit and answer and then discussion stops. Divergent questions encourage further discussion. The kinds of dialogue that these questions generate expand students' thinking, help them think more openly, expose them to various viewpoints and ideas on a topic, and stress application of knowledge.
Many teachers have students keep reading response logs in which they record thoughts, questions, ideas, and other responses to the literature they are reading. Response logs, although used in other parts of the reading curriculum, can also be very useful before, during, and after meeting in groups. While students are reading, they can record thoughts or questions they want to remember to bring up during discussion with their group. They may jot down an important quote or excerpt that they want to point out to their group, or record a key insight that occurs to them as they read.
During group meetings, students will refer to their response logs to jog their memory, and they might even quickly jot down an important idea that is brought up in the discussion. After the meeting, students can have more time to write about how the group's discussion went, what role they took on and how they think they did, and any new insights that might have come up as a result of the group's interaction.
Overall success of literature discussion groups can be measured by the depth and quality of your students' response to literature as seen in their written responses and their conversations about books. With successful response groups, you will find evidence of learning from students' increased comprehension of what they are reading, and their articulation of their understanding of a wide variety of texts. As you confer with groups and with individual students, you will take note of their progress and the challenges they face, so you will have a clear idea of the next steps they need to take to enhance their reading and comprehension skills.
As with other collaborative learning experiences, it is essential to have multiple measures in order to get a true picture of student progress. Daniels (1994) lists several general categories of measures:
Response logs, mentioned previously, can serve to enhance and prepare students for the work they do in groups, and also to document their progress as they become thoughtful readers. Reading response logs show evidence of student learning throughout the year and can be a major part of a student's reading and writing portfolio.
Encourage your students to read for pleasure with book discussions. Students can share with the class or a small group a book that they have recently read in a variety of fun, creative ways.
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