How to Use Literature Circles

What Are Literature Circles?

An innovative educational technique, literature circles are quickly gaining popularity at all levels of schooling, from elementary schools to colleges.  With the educational focus on fostering critical reading conjointlywith sharpening discussion skills, these student-run groups are similar to book clubs: curious learners gather around a previouslychosen book to share their interpretations, confusions and thoughts.  Because the concept of literature circles is still relatively new and experimental, teachers tweak their method of implementation so as best to suit their goals.  Some create roles within the group; most incorporate silent reading, notetaking, and journals.  This article explores these components of literature circles in more depth.

Why Use Literature Circles?

The fundamental purpose of educational systems is to foster the unique personal development of every student.  Literature circles allow students to take the reins of their own academic journey.  They are able to explore their own identities through free writing, and build upon their thoughts from listening to their classmates’ diverse interpretations.

Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of literature circles is that they promote a learning environment based on active reading and analysis.  Examples of active learning are readings of the first couple of pages or a quick look at the cover art followed by predictions regarding plot, themes, or character.  An example of active learning that stretches beyond the present act of reading would be relating characters, settings and storylines to previous experiences. 

Literature circles offer a great balance between focusing on the development of one’s personal intellectual growth and developing honest, tactful and productive ways of talking in group settings.  Keeping a journal ensures that students have an outlet for honest self-expression where no inhibitions about sentence structure or actual writing content exist.  The talking circles that formulate creative ways of interacting with the text then allow students to voice their opinions in a setting that accepts differing interpretations.  With character maps, venn diagrams or webs, talking circles suggest that multiple interpretations are possible and completely welcomed.

How Best To Set up Literature Circles

Because a literature circle is meant to put the power of learning in the hands of its students, these discussion groups are organized into different leading roles for each student.  One teacher created the following roles: Team leader, who asks questions to push discussion; Vocabulary keeper, who maintains a record of unknown words and their definitions; the Connector, who ties the text to the outside world; the Illustrator, who provides a vivid description of an important moment; the Story mapper, who creates visuals to diagram the flow of the plot; and the Summarizer.  A sixth grade teacher has similar roles: the Artful Artist, the Discussion Director, the Capable Connector and the Word Wizard.  She adds the Literary Luminary who directs attention to critical or interesting passages in the text. 

The agenda for the day is also important; every minute should be geared towards engaging the students in critical thinking, reading and questioning. First of all, literary circles have book talks to choose a book.  Choice is key. Facilitators must provide choices with appropriate content (character development, controversy) and skill level (vocab or sentence structure).  Scholars have differing viewpoints on whether or not literature circles should be heterogenous or homogenous.  The side that espouses homogenous groups emphasizes the reluctance students have about talking openly when surrounded by students of higher abilities. Those who advocate heterogenous groups highlight the benefit of learning from others’ experiences and ideas.  Social scientists are still debating.

After choosing a book, daily schedules start with silent reading for twenty minutes followed by journal writing where students reflect on what they have just read and mull over the notes they have taken.  This portion of the literature circle allows students to contemplate their own thoughts before sharing with their peers in a group discussion.  With this prior analysis, discussions can run more smoothly.

How to Avoid Common Problems

Because literature circles are used in classrooms where different types of learners abound, there are many potential problems.  One problem is a lack of dialogue that results from students not doing the reading or just being shy.  This problem often manifests itself as the dreaded “silence” when the facilitator looks in turn at each student who nervously eyes the rug.  The second problem is the issue of passive learning where students read the text quickly, write cursory thoughts and robotically replay what they’ve just read.  A third possible problem is the monopolization of conversation.

Solutions are plentiful.  Most focus on the psychological aspect of a learning environment.  If facilitators promote one where risk taking is seen as positive and where friendly, conversation-like ponderings are the norm, discussion will naturally flow.  Personal connections or side comments will be seen as interesting and conventional.  The lack of a teacher’s presence is also important: students are more likely to state their opinions when in a more relaxed setting with peers who have the common goal of trying to develop a deeper appreciation for the story.  Lastly, an interactive and fun mood should pervade the classroom.  With humor, illustrations and skits, delving further into a story becomes exhilarating: a task that reveals a new twist at every turn of a page and excites students to become active learners.

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