Literature Ladders

Theory to Practice: Literature Circles

Literature Circles involve a small group of students exploring a piece of literature in depth. Although you'll find lots of books and articles on the Literature Circles, there are many ways to implement the strategies across grade levels and subject areas. Think of literature circles as one element of a balanced literacy program rather than "the solution." In most cases, the application of literature circles evolves over time as students and teachers become more experienced readers. Check out the off-site resources by Katherine L. Schlick Noe titled Overview of Literature Circles.

The Approach

This learner-centered approach focuses on students' responses to the literature they read. In Literature Circles, students are actively engaged in reading through making choices, discussing, and constructing meaning. This strategy engages students in higher-level thinking and reflection by encouraging collaboration and constructing meaning with other readers. These literary discussions are guided by student insights, observations, and questions. They may be related to the characters, setting, plot, and author, along with connections to student experiences. Learners often take on a variety of roles in their group and learn to facilitate their own discussions and projects.

The goal of literature circles is enthusiastic, natural, informal conversation that encourages a life-long love of reading. As one element of a balanced literacy program, reading circles can provide an exciting way to promote reading from Kindergarten through Grade 12. Guidelines for structuring activities can be found at Katherine L. Schlick Noe's website for primary and intermediate/middle grades as well as for secondary grades.

Read Laura Candler's easy step-by-step instructions for implementing literature circles in the classroom. She has lots of forms you can use too.

The Books

Rather than reading basels, textbooks, or short excerpts, student read novels, short stories, plays, historical fiction, biographies, and other rich popular or classical literature. Generally, literature circle group members will read the same book. Other groups in the same classroom may be reading different books and the groups may jigsaw or participate in a class-wide culiminating activity. Often, books of different reading levels are chosen to accommodate individual reading needs. In some cases, group members may be reading different texts by a particular author, different texts on the same theme (courage, family tradition, survival...), or different texts from the same genre (mysteries, historical fiction, poetry...).

The Choice

It's easier for students to become passionate about reading when they make choices about their own learning. When possible, allow students to select from a variety of books. If students select a book above their reading level, ask them to do the "five fingers" or "three bears" reading check. You may be able to convince them that an easier book is better. In some cases a tutor or audio-CD/tape might be needed to allow a student to select a book above their reading level. If students select books below their reading level, use a booktalk to motivate them to select a more challenging book. Of course, you could always assign the books, but most students are more motivated by choice.

The Discussions

Group discussions are at the core of a Literature Circle. Start by assessing the discussion skills of your students. Get learners involved in this process by brainstorming lists of the qualities of "good" and "poor" group participants. What does a good listener do or not do? Next, teach some basic discussion etiquette. Try some role playing and modeling using a read-aloud book. Practice these techniques in small groups. Debrief the group using reflection techniques such as asking them to recall something that went poorly or particularly well. Help students create a set of discussion guidelines that can serve as reminders. Periodically provide ideas for ways the group can strengthen their discussion skills. Check out Katherine L. Schlick Noe's website for an excellent explanation of group discussions. Also read The Importance of Oral Language in the School Curriculum by Gillian Bertram (English Online, 2002)

The Roles

Most literature circles provide for specific roles and responsibilities within the group. For example, students might take on the roles of discussion director, wacky word finder, travel tracer, super summarizer, passage picker, and interest investigator. Rotating roles keep the discussions fresh and interesting and allows students to each take different leadership responsibilities. The roles encourage students to focus on different cognitive perspectives related to their reading and draw on different intelligences. At first, the roles may be primarily directed at the readings. For example, for a given chapter one student writes discussion questions, another visualizes the setting through art, while still another student identifies new vocabulary or interesting passages. As these roles become a natural part of the circle, you may shift the roles to be more activity specific such as those found in WebQuests. Many find that roles limit the flexibility of the group and prefer to use general group guidelines rather than strict roles. Use the role titles below to get started thinking about the possibilities.

Discussion Director

Wacky Word Finder

Super Selector

Artsy Artist

Cool Connector

Super Summarizer

Travel Tracer

Passage Picker

Idea Investigator

Literary Luminator

Interest Illustrator

Alternative Advocate


The Assessment

There are many tools that can be used to assess student performance in literature circle situations. Consider a list of focus questions from Noe's website.

Thematic Literature Circles

Our eduscapes Themed Literature Units go hand-in-hand with Literature Circles. For example, a teacher might focus on a topic such as the Holocaust and ask small groups of students to each read a different book. Students can be grouped based on interests, reading levels, or other criteria. Other popular thematic literature circle topics include, friendship, community, environment, justice, fairy tales, biographies, dealing with disaster, survival, homelessness, women in history, pioneers, underground railroad, journals, fantasy, mythology, medieval Europe, Depression, cross-generations, and Civil War.

eye for essentialExplore at least two of the following literature circles "starters." Notice how technology can used to access information about books, authors, lessons, and activities. Brainstorm topics and books that would work well for literature-circle type activities.

Technology-Rich Literature Circles

Students working on themed literature circles often ask questions that require resources that go beyond the books. Technology is an excellent resource for addressing these questions. Students may use an Internet resource to visualize a book setting, learn about the book's author, or explore the science or history behind a book topic. Students may also use the Internet as a communication tool. For example, they may use an "ask-an-expert" website to communicate with a person who represents a careers discussed in the book. They can also use email as a tool for discussing issues with students beyond the classroom. Through online collaborative projects students can work with other classes who are reading the same book or exploring the same theme. This can add an interesting dimension by providing an authentic audience for student sharing. This is also a way for students to ask good questions. For example, a rural class might connect with an urban class and discuss issues related to life in a particular setting.

eye means essentialRead Virtual Circles: Using Technology to Enhance Literature Circles & Socratic Seminars by Johnny Walters in Meridian (Summer 2003). Do you think virtual circles would work in a school or library you've worked with? Why or why not?

General Literature Circles Resources

The following links include off-site articles and online resources.

Literature Circle Articles

Sample Units

Recommended Books

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