Usable Knowledge Literature Circles How educators can make this small group exercise work better in their classrooms Posted November 12, 2021 By Emily Boudreau Language and Literacy Development Teachers and Teaching When you find yourself reading a good book, whether you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what a character will do next or amazed by the poetry of a descriptive passage, you probably want to share what you’ve read with someone — not write a book report or build a diorama, as students are often asked to do. “There’s an excitement around sharing words,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education senior lecturer and Jeanne Chall Reading Lab director Pamela Mason, whose work and research focuses on developing culturally responsive and effective literacy and reading instructional practices. “Children have a right to those experiences, and they want those types of experiences. That’s what makes learning fun and engages them in school.” So how can educators encourage natural discussion and enthusiasm for books in the classroom while also ensuring students understand what they’re reading and continue to grow as readers? Why Literature Circles? Literature circles — a small group of students that gathers to discuss a book, much like a book club — are not a new idea, and in fact, remain quite popular because they are incredibly effective. Indeed, many studies of developing reading comprehension, including those by Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Catherine Snow, have emphasized the positive impact of having kids talk about what they read. Talking about reading also helps build a classroom culture around books. “It’s motivating,” says Mason. “We’ve found from the research that, regardless of what you read, the more you read, the better you get. And the better you get, the more you like it. The more you like it, you feel competent at it, and it’s this virtuous cycle. [Reading becomes] something I do, that my friends do.” “There’s an excitement around sharing words. Children have a right to those experiences, and they want those types of experiences. That’s what makes learning fun and engages them in school.” Those conversations allow readers to hone their critical thinking skills. They might think about the decisions a character makes or whether they agree with something a classmate has said as they make connections between the book and themselves, other books they’ve read, or something they’ve seen on the news or heard about in their communities. Using Literature Circles Successfully Mason has a few ideas to make them more successful and to help educators overcome common hiccups, like differentiating appropriately and avoiding overly teacher-led conversations, when implementing literature circles. THE PROBLEM: Balancing reading requirements with student choice. Students devour the latest Percy Jackson book but are less enthusiastic about picking up their assigned reading from The Odyssey. From required summer reading lists to being told a book is too difficult or too easy, school-age children aren’t always given a choice when selecting reading material. Yet according to Mason, choice is essential. It’s part of what makes reading fun for adults and that needs to be extended to children as well. With so many choices, including graphic novels and e-books, teachers can have children reading the same book or following the same storyline in different media. It’s also important to think about whether the text students are reading reflects their backgrounds and interests. “Think about the texts you’re offering — are they varied in terms of content, representation of characters, and settings that represent the learners in your classroom? Are they multilingual?” says Mason. THE PROBLEM: Students have a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses as readers, yet you want to avoid stigmatizing students based on their assessed reading level. Mix up the reading groups so they aren’t always based on assessed reading levels. It can be important to have students read texts that are accessible and to do so alongside readers who can also access those books. However, there are other factors to take into consideration. “Teachers can give students a test and a score — but that score doesn’t measure motivation, doesn’t measure background knowledge, or the type of text a learner might be able to access because of those knowledges,” says Mason. Nonfiction texts can also be used in literature circles — consider mixing up the groups and allowing students to choose their literature circle based on a shared topic of interest. Mason also notes that readers don’t always need to be challenged. Given the right kind of framing or thought-provoking questions, a simple text can still hone a reader’s skills. For example, asking high schoolers to revisit some of their favorite picture books from childhood and to think critically about how they absorbed that message can be powerful. For example, what does Where the Wild Things Are say about anger? “We’ve found from the research that, regardless of what you read, the more you read, the better you get. And the better you get, the more you like it. The more you like it, you feel competent at it, and it’s this virtuous cycle.” THE PROBLEM Students look to the teacher after answering questions, rather than turning to each other. Evaluate how you model discussions in your classroom. Do the students respond to each other? Or does one student respond and then you speak to the next student? Try calling students in to the discussion by asking if they have something to add. Also, ask them what they think of what another student has said. Taking turns, stepping back and allowing someone else to talk, being curious and not judgmental, and perspective-taking should be part of community agreements in the classroom and modeled in all subject areas. THE PROBLEM Students struggle to stay on-task in small groups or give one-word answers to discussion questions. Maybe some students aren’t as involved in the conversation as others. Typically, literature circles include assigning roles to students. While these roles can become stagnant and rigid in some circumstances, they can be a great way to add structure and coax reluctant participants into contributing. Some examples of roles include a student who is making connections, finding a passage that strikes them, or illustrating a scene. Mason recommends, though, that students rotate roles so all learners can gain experience contributing in a different way and, once the discussion starts to flow regularly, phasing out the roles. Tips from a Teacher Robin Loewald, a 2019 master’s graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, works as a high school English teacher in Melrose, Massachusetts. Here, she provides a few key takeaways on how she’s used literature circles. “My biggest role as an educator is to create a space and structure for a discussion to be successful,” says Loewald. To do that, she dedicates time early in the year to establish expectations and set the tone. “We play a lot of games, things like rock, paper, scissor tournaments, so kids get to know each other and are comfortable using each other’s names. This makes them more comfortable talking about things that are important or serious later on.” She’s also found that literature circles can be a powerful way to connect students, even during remote learning. Letting students choose the book is also important and can promote engagement. “Even in remote spaces, when they’re talking about a book they care about, you can feel the investment, emotion, and pride in their conversations.” Use the opportunity to tackle difficult subjects. Loewald lead a voluntary book club over the summer because students expressed a desire to talk about race. “It helps students feel like they’re able to engage in a conversation that can be challenging. [The book] gives them a reference point and a shared vocabulary to talk about really important things.” Additional Resources Read this UK story on how to bring controversial books into the classroom. An Ed. magazine story on how to teach reading. Listen to an EdCast with Professor James Kim, Beyond the Literacy Debate. Read an essay by Loewald in Ed. magazine on teaching virtually. 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