I’ve put together this blog post to explore using literature circles in your reading programme. I also look at the benefits of literature circles, the research behind their use, and how they can be run in the classroom. Remember, literature circles are not a one-size-fits-all approach – there are many ways they can be run. Trust your own professional judgement and use this tool in the way that works best for your students.
What is a literature circle?
Literature circles, sometimes called Book Clubs, are small, peer-led discussion groups where students all read the same novel independently and meet to discuss sections together. They make notes to help them with the discussion and everyone comes to the meeting with ideas and opinions to share.
What are the benefits?
Children practice focussed discussion skills, enjoy reading a whole novel, develop their critical thinking and participate in a social reading process. The focus is on children mining deeper into the book for themselves, noticing their personal thoughts and opinions, and having a discussion with elements of opinion, debate, and evidence. The rich oral language opportunities involved in explaining and defending thoughts are invaluable.
How do you run a Literature Circle?
There is no one right way to run a literature circle as methods are always evolving. Harvey Daniels is generally known as the Father of Literature Circles. In 1993, Chicago teachers were using classroom literature circles modelled on adult book clubs and Daniels created some supports for children so they would have meaningful, critical discussions. Daniels has researched and written prolifically about Literature Circles and their evolution.
How does it work in the classroom?
First, find an interesting novel and pre-read it (you will need a set so each student has their own copy). Decide how scaffolded you will make the circle – by scaffolded, I mean how structured you want to make the discussion. I also recommend having a class chat about discussion etiquette: wait time, taking turns, how to agree or disagree respectfully, and also how to look for characters, themes, and ideas.
Gather a group of around six students and introduce the book and the process. The students’ first meeting is to agree on the four to six sections that they will break the book into and the timing/date of their next meeting. They set their own expectations, e.g. everyone must read the whole section, everyone must prepare for the discussion, everyone talks and everyone listens, rules around whether they can read ahead, and so on.
To ensure quality discussion, a variety of supports (scaffolds) have been suggested by writers and researchers as ways to scaffold rich talk. I have listed some versions here that you could try and provided some freebies to help you out. Of course, you could run your literature circle in a different way, too!
How do Literature Circles fit into your reading programme?
Once your literature circles are set up, you’ll have self-managing teams reading and discussing a text, allowing you to teach other students. Daniels (2002) calls it a ‘balance between guided and independent reading, wide and close reading, and social and individual reading’. The aim is to promote independent reading, critical thinking, discussion skills, and the love of reading a book. You can have several circles operating at once, but it is easier for the teacher if each circle is reading the same book.
Are Literature Circles Supported by Research?
There is a strong evidence base that students participating in critical thinking discussions focused on the understanding of texts is associated with accelerated gains in reading comprehension, especially for Māori and Pasifika students (Jesson, et. al., 2018, McNaughton & Lai, 2012, Kim & Wilkinson, 2019).
Examples of Literature Circles
In the first three literature circle examples, all learners independently read the book, looking for the same things. in the final example, students take on different roles, looking at different aspects of the novel and contributing different ideas. Neither way of running a literature circle is right or wrong – just different!
1. Four Questions Literature Circle
Every student reads a section of the book on their own and records their thoughts on a prepared sheet (we have one prepared – don’t worry!) Everyone answers all 4 questions.
- Make some predictions about what might happen next in the book.
- Write down some unfamiliar words or wonderful vocabulary.
- Share their thoughts about the characters.
- Write some why and how questions to ask the group.
The students bring their sheet to the circle meeting, choose a leader and everyone takes turns to discuss the first question. Next, each student shares their responses to question two, three, and four. The students decide on the next section of the book to be read, and when the next meeting will be. They then start reading the next section.
2. Six Questions Literature Circle
Every student reads a section of the book on their own and records their thoughts on a prepared sheet (we have one prepared – don’t worry!). They must complete at least four of the questions.
- Find something confusing in the text.
- Write some questions and thoughts about the plot, characters, or information in the text.
- Find a part of the text that relates to a personal experience you have had.
- Look for some interesting or memorable language/vocabulary in the text.
- Write down a very exciting, entertaining, or moving part of the text.
- Draw a picture or diagram about the text, or find a diagram or a dramatic photograph in the text to share.
The students bring their sheet to the circle meeting, choose a leader and everyone takes turns to discuss the first question. Similar to the activity above, each student shares their responses to question two, three, and so on. The students decide on the next section of the book to be read, and when the next meeting will be. They then start reading the next section.
3. Literature Circles Using Sentence Starters
Every student reads a section of the book on their own and records their thoughts on a prepared sheet (you guessed it – we have one of these for you, too!). They must choose to do five or more sentence starters.
- I noticed…
- I wondered…
- This part reminds me of…
- I appreciated…
- I felt…
- If that happened to me, I would…
- I learned…
- I was surprised by…
- This book reminds me of… because…
- Something similar happened to me when…
- I predict…
The students bring their sheet to the circle meeting, choose a leader and everyone takes turns to discuss their responses. Students who have completed the first sentence starter share their responses and then the discussion moves to the second sentence starter, and so on. When all students have shared all of their responses, students decide on the next section of the book to be read, and when the next meeting will be. They then start reading the next section.
4. The Classic Literature Circle – Each Student Has a Different Role
Prepare the six literature circle role preparation sheets (you guessed it – we’ve got some free for you!). The children choose and rotate the roles throughout the sessions. They read with their role in mind and fill out their role preparation sheets. These role preparation sheets can then be used to guide their part of the discussion.
At the meeting the leader first asks their own prepared questions. Then they ask each person to share from their role. During the week, the students are: reading their book, preparing their role sheet for the meeting, having a meeting, or choosing an extension activity.
There are a lot of different names out there (and some examples I’ve seen have more than six roles), so if you choose this version, your kids can be creative with the names. Here are six roles that are commonly used:
- Questioner/Leader: creates questions and topics for the discussion and leads the meeting.
- Summariser: prepares a brief summary of the section read. A tip – use the Five-Sentence Summary. One for each finger: First, Next, Then, And and Finally (Serravallo, 2015).
- Connector: makes connections between the text and the reader, and something outside the text.
- Collector: collects interesting or puzzling words or passages the group would like to hear and reads them aloud.
- Illustrator: creates a sketch, drawing, cartoon or diagram of some aspect of the section.
- Vocabulary Hunter: locates important or unusual words in the text.
A Key Consideration with Literature Circles
Some writers including Daniels (2006) have concerns with the classic method, and believe that reading from the role sheets can cause stilted, dry discussion. Gallagher (2009) warns of “readicide” where too much structure kills the love of reading. Daniels (2006) suggests that the use of scaffolds like role cards and preparation sheets should be temporary, aiming for rich, conversations around texts without them. Serravallo (2015) has said that the biggest goal of a literature circle is to arrive at new thinking. I’ve included the free scaffolds as a way to introduce literature circles. However, with experience, and if your students are exploring new ideas in each session, they may not need the scaffolds in the long term.
Give it a go!
Literature circles can make your life easier in the classroom as you pass agency onto your students. You will also find that kids really enjoy them. Co-construct them with your kids and get creative!
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