Literature Circles – An Introduction

In traditional classrooms the entire class reads one novel, as the teacher guides their students through the text.  This is not the case with Literature Circles.  Literature Circles allow students to choose texts that resonate with them; choice allows for ownership, which heights student engagement with their text.

In literature circles, small groups of students read a book and guide each other through the text.  They take turns performing a variety of roles which focus on the key literacy skills.  Rather than feeling as if they are forced to read a book they feel no connection to, at a pace that doesn’t suit their needs, students are able to flip the classroom and chart their own course through the text, as the teacher observes and moderates their progress.

What are the benefits of Literature Circles?

As stated, the main benefit of Literature Circles is that students have choice in what they want to read.  While each school’s book room will be different, there is no reason there can not be a variety of texts to choose from.  Ordering 30 copies of one book requires the same budget as order 6 copies of 5 different books, so why not purchase five different titles that students can choose from?

We know that when students see themselves represented in a text they are better able to connect to it.  When students are engaged, they can read beyond their assessed reading level.

Through the use of Literature Circles students take on leadership roles, and are answerable to their peers, rather than their teacher, when they are ill prepared.  By shifting the structure of the classroom, students rise to the challenges before them.

Where do I start?

  1. The first step in running literature circles is transforming the culture of your English Department.  While some teachers and administrators may be instantly receptive to the idea, others may need convincing.  Luckily, there is a wealth of research pointing to the effects of Literature Circles on student success.
  2. Start purchasing small sets of novels.  Feel free to use these book lists as a starting point:
  3. Familiarize yourself with How to Run Literature Circles 
  4. Create Literature Circle Resources for your students to use

Part 1: Literature Circles – Introduction

Part 2: How to Run Literature Circles

Part 3: Literature Circle – Resources


More information can be found at…

Literature Circle Resources – http://www.litcircles.org/index.html

How to Run Literature Circles

To run a literature circle you first need to determine what sort of assessments you’re looking for.  Next, you will need to block off enough time for students to complete their readings, as well as their projects.

Planning the Assessments

I use four role sheets that students complete as they read their text, followed up with a larger project-based activity.

The Ontario English Curriculum breaks the subject area into four main strands: Reading, Writing, Media, and Oral.

It is important that all strands are represented in your literature circles.  This can be done by ensuring that each of the role sheets connects to one of the strands, and that the project-based activity is broken into four parts as well.

Blocking off the Time

Regardless of student grade or level, I have found that running a complete literature circle requires four weeks.  While my plans always call for 18 days it’s rare to get through a month without losing a class here or there to a long weekend, P.D. day, or assembly.  Giving yourself a full month will allow enough overflow days to ensure you have the time to run your activity.

Student Led Learning

One thing that can be alarming for teachers is that there is very little standing at the front of the room time during literature circles.  Teachers need to be comfortable with sitting back and allowing students to progress on their own.

Obviously no semester should start with a literature circle.  They should only be attempted when teachers are ready to release responsibility to the students.  Running teacher-led instruction that focuses on the various role sheets and literature circle responsibilities using short stories can be a great way to prepare students for literature circles later on in the year.

Class Breakdowns

During the one month Literature Circle there are four main types of classes: Reading Days, Discussion Days, Project-Based Activity Days, and Presentation Days.

Reading Days

During the reading days students can have the entire period for sustained reading of their text.  There is nothing wrong with allowing students the opportunity to read.  You may also want to use this time to lead by example, refreshing yourself with their texts, or reading potential candidates for future literature circles.

Depending on your class, you may also wish to break these days into two halves.  During one half students can read their texts, while the other half can be dedicated to teacher-led instruction.  Perhaps you can use this time to teach how the media triangle relates to their text’s cover art, or discuss essay writing skills that will aid them in their upcoming assignments.

The reading day prior to a discussion day should also be used for students to work on the completion of their current role sheet.

Finally, each of these days should end with a quick ten minute journal writing activity where students can further process what they have read, while practicing key literacy skills.

Discussion Days

During discussion days groups that are reading the same text will come together and talk about the latest section of their text, presenting their latest role sheet. There are two schools of though on how students should read through the text.

One school states that students should have read one quarter of their text for each discussion, ensuring that all group members have reached the same place in the text prior to the discussion.

The other school states that students should read at their pace, and that it doesn’t matter if they are on the same page or not, as they can demonstrate their key literacy skills regardless of how much, or little, they have read.

Each teacher must determine how they want to set up literature circles in their own classroom

Project Based Activity Days

These days are to be used for students to work on their project based activity.  While the bulk of these days should be placed after the final discussion day, when students have completed their novel, there is no reason why one or two of them can’t be peppered throughout the other portion of the month.

Presentation Days

Presentation days are when students will show the results of their project-based activities to the class.  It can be helpful to have students take notes on each of the presentations for a short debriefing of ideas at the end of each presentation day.  This will keep students engaged while watching their peers’ presentations.

Roles

As mentioned, there are four main roles that each student will rotate through.  Each of them focuses on a different strand of the Ontario English Curriculum, while also highlighting different Key Literacy Skills.

Analytical Artist

Strand: Media
Literacy Skills: Connecting, Visualizing, Determining Importance

The Analytical Artist must make a Self-to-Text connection with their selected reading.

The Analytical Artist will then create a visual depiction (poster, sculpture, drawing, etc.) of the connection.  The piece should highlight both the Self, and the Text portions of the connection.  The piece must be at least 8.5 x 11 inches in size.

Next, the Analytical Artist must create a write up that fully explains the connection, being sure to use specific details from their own life, and the text as evidence.

Discussion Director

Strand: Oral
Literacy Skills: Questioning, Connecting, Determining Importance

The Discussion Director will create evaluative questions based on the themes raised in their current section of text.   The questions should force a text-to-self connection when answered.

The Discussion Director is also responsible for answering the questions in one fully detailed paragraph for each question.

Note:   The questions are based on the themes and not the plot.  For example, if you read a text where John steals milk from the corner store your question should be, “what do you think causes someone to justify theft to themselves?” That question relates to the theme of the text.  It should not be, “why do you think Johnny stole the milk?”  That question relates to the plot.

Passage Picker

Strand: Reading
Literacy Skills: Determining Importance, Summarizing, Comparing, Synthesizing

The Passage Picker must choose sections of text that are important in their current reading section.

Next, the passage picker must explain the importance of each selected passage in a full and complete paragraph.  Specific details such as character development, foreshadowing, or key plot points may be used to prove importance.

Synopsis Synthesizer

Strand: Writing
Literacy Skills: Summarizing, Predicting, Inferring, Synthesizing

The Synopsis Synthesizer needs to write a summary of their text selection.  All key details should be included in this write up.  This page should also link to specific themes and developments that are present throughout the text.

Finally, the Synopsis Synthesizer must write multiple paragraphs inferring what will happen next.  They must back up their inference with specific details from the text.  Simply stating, “I know this happens, because I read the next part,” will not garner any marks for inferring what is to come.

Project-Based Activity

There are a number of different ways that students can explore their texts in a project based activity.  I attempt to ensure each of the curricular strands are demonstrated in the project-based activity.

There are two main ways that I run this final activity.  One is a teacher-focused, traditional option, while the other allows much more freedom, but requires higher levels of engagement from the students.

Option One: Traditional, Teacher Directed 

    • A strong visual representation of the text – Focusing on Reading Skills
    • A class discussion based on the text’s themes – Focusing on Oral Skills
    • A movie showing what happens after the text – Focusing on Media and Writing Skills
    • A movie poster with key details from the text – Focusing on Media and Writing Skills

Option Two: Free Form, Student Directed

    • Students self-select something they would like to create that focusing on the themes of the text.  It can include, but is not limited to:
      • A comic book
      • A song
      • A mixed-media art piece
      • A video game
      • A Choose Our Way Tale (multiple paths story)
    • A class discussion that links their creation to the textual themes
    • A written report that explains why their creation was the best way to highlight their text’s themes

I have since expanded on this idea, creating a full fledged project dedicated to it.  More information can be found by reading about Operation: Publication.


Part 1: Literature Circles – Introduction

Part 2: How to Run Literature Circles

Part 3: Literature Circle – Resources

Literature Circles – Resources

Now that you have familiarized yourself with Literature Circles, and how they run, you may find yourself in need of assignments and handouts to provide to your students.  Feel free to distribute my sheets for non-commercial purposes.

Downloads

Literature Circles – The Complete Package

Role Sheets

Project-Based Assignment

Daily Journaling Topics


Part 1: Literature Circles – Introduction

Part 2: How to Run Literature Circles

Part 3: Literature Circle – Resources