“What did you think about this …?” “Wait … I missed something here.” “She did what?”
Ever find yourself in the depths of a good book and suddenly wish you had someone to talk to? Someone who would explain what you’re missing or give you a reason to read on through the weird parts? I sure do. And I know that’s why a lot of us join book groups. Literature circles offer middle grade readers that same great opportunity to savor good books within a community of readers.
What I call literature circles, others know as book clubs, book groups, literature discussion circles (and on and on). What they have in common is this: Small groups of readers gather together to discuss a book they’re reading in common. The goals are multi-tiered, among them growing avid and capable readers, developing understanding through talking with others, building community, enhancing appreciation for good books.
I’ve worked with many teachers over the years who are experts at bringing middle grade readers and good books together in literature circles. I’d like to share some of their strategies for supporting students in building comprehension and love for reading in collaboration with their peers. This post offers a bare bones structure to help you get started on literature circles for the very first time or to help you refine the way you’re currently using them. You’ll find quick suggestions for choosing books, guiding students to read and prepare for discussions, making discussions meaningful and productive, organizing written response, and finally, pulling in the arts to extend students’ experience with books.
From this starting point, you can add components and make changes that meet the specific needs of your students and your style of teaching. Of course, one short post can’t answer every question you might have. For more information, I invite you to visit the Literature Circles Resource Center.
You can do literature circles with small groups of students reading a variety of books – or with all students reading the same book. Many teachers begin with the books they have on hand. Later, they look for books that will invite response – funny, action-packed, meaningful.
Literature circles depend upon student choice – choice in books, choices in what to talk about, choices in how to respond in writing or through the arts. With some assistance, even struggling readers can construct meaning with others as they talk about books in literature circles. Therefore, one of the most important principles is to guide students to select the book that they want to read and discuss with others.
Book talk: Hold up each book as you describe it to students. You might share a short summary, read aloud an engaging excerpt, or simply tell students what it’s about. After the book talk, many teachers will display the books in order of difficulty to help students decide whether the book will be one they can read and discuss successfully. Before students select, ask them to “get their hands on” the book – get it into their hands to read a page or two or look over to see if it seems interesting.
Choose by ballot: Students select their first, second, and third choice books on a ballot or on a plain piece of paper.
Form groups: The teacher forms groups, trying to give as many students as possible their first choice book. However, teachers also keep in mind students who may have a difficult time working together or students who may need additional support as they read the book. Because you may not have enough books for everyone to have a first choice every time, make a commitment to students to keep track of the choices and to give a first choice at the next round of literature circles.
Reading and Preparing for Discussion
Focus for reading: Help your students think about why readers often want to talk about books with others, and what sorts of insights, details, events, and issues in books make for great conversations. This is easily modeled during your read aloud as you show how readers respond and ask real questions (“Did you hear how the author painted a vivid image with words? Let’s read that again;” “I wonder why he’s doing that right now… it doesn’t fit what happened earlier.”). Start a list of “Things Worth Mentioning” vs. “Things Worth Discussing” to help students understand the kinds of topics/ideas that are merely interesting but not discussion provoking, and those that will really get a conversation going.
Determine how much to read: Students may be able to read an entire picture book before they discuss. For longer books, a good guideline is to have students discuss at three points in the book – after the first few chapters (as characters and conflicts are introduced and there is a lot to speculate about), somewhere near the middle (as plot points and characters develop), and at the end (where everything is resolved and predictions, inferences, and speculations are clear). You can divide the books into reading segments – or you can guide students to look over the book, taking into account how many discussion days you have set aside, and divide up their book themselves. This will involve a couple of focus lessons: How to identify good “discussion points,” how to come to agreement on how much each group member can read at one time, how to figure out logical stopping places.
Set a reading, discussion, and writing schedule: You can use a calendar to either assign groups to discussion days or guide groups to determine their own discussion schedule. One possibility: Set the first two or three days as reading days, with a discussion to follow; read for two or three more days (plus do some writing about what they’ve read), then discuss again. When students are in the middle of their book, you might have more time devoted to writing than to reading. As groups near the end of the book, you can provide time for them to think about and work on extension projects.
Tools to gather information: Provide simple tools to help your students collect ideas for discussion: Open-ended questions, prompts (“I wonder…” “I thought … because …”, “I noticed…”), quotes, or sticky notes to mark something they want to talk about. Use these tools only as long as you think students need them – when students seem to be able to come up with their own topics for discussion, discontinue this support.
Making Discussions Work
Having a real conversation about a book doesn’t come naturally to most students. They will need some guidance, modeling, and practice before they begin to internalize the skills of discussion. Two key elements of this process: Model a discussion so that students can see what a true conversation looks like and sounds like; and debrief after each discussion to refine students’ understanding and conversational skill.
Fishbowl: A very simple form of modeling in which students carry on a discussion in front of the class. The teacher stops the group at various points to guide the class to articulate what’s working and why. From this experience, students generate guidelines for discussion, which they then practice and refine.
Debrief: After each discussion, ask students two simple questions: What went well? What are you still working on? These questions can be asked during a whole-class debriefing, short session with an individual group following their discussion, as a journal response, or on a form for group response. Use responses to plan focus lessons.
Writing to Think and to Respond
Writing can be a good way to clarify what students want to talk about before the discussion, or to capture their thinking after the discussion. Before discussion, writing can be used to generate topics for the conversation; after discussion, writing can be used for debriefing and goal setting. Here are some simple forms of written response that can be used either before or after discussion:
Golden lines: Capture provocative quotes or interesting words. In the discussion, talk about what stood out for you in this quote and what it tells you about the character or the story.
Focus on theme: Answer open-ended questions related to the theme: In what ways is the character showing courage right now? How is your character dealing with adversity?
Letter to a character: Write in the voice of one character to another. Or write to a character from your own perspective.
Many students can articulate their thinking and feelings artistically more easily than by talking or writing. Although not a requirement of literature circles, artistic response opportunities give some students a welcome”voice.”
Some examples: Here are a few examples of powerful and relatively simple forms of artistic response: literary weaving (see photo), story quilt, and commemorative stamp. You’ll find more examples, photos and detailed information on planning and evaluating projects at the Literature Circles Resource Center.
Suzanne is a middle grader who gave me the best testimonial for literature circles that I’ve ever read. I’ll let her make the case:
Katherine Schlick Noe has learned everything she knows about literature circles from hundreds of amazing teachers and students who vividly demonstrate the power of reading, writing, thinking, and responding in a community of readers. Visit her at the Literature Circles Resource Center or at her author website http://katherineschlicknoe.com.