by Jan Zeiger
During my first couple of years of teaching, I was required to teach reading the "SFA" way. If you're not sure what I'm talking about, count your blessings! "SFA" stands for Success for All. It's a reading program that promises "success" for every student. I taught the this rigid, scripted program for two years until I could no longer be a part of it. But that's another article.
When I changed schools, I was so excited about being able to teach reading using an approach that would excite my students while enabling them to grow as readers. However, I didn't know where to start. I began my research by reading Guiding Readers and Writers by Fountas and Pinnell, and I was truly inspired. I also spent hours online doing research about reading instruction.
In September, I decided to try using Literature Circles with my students. I read that they were temporary reading groups in which students had the opportunity to choose the books and discuss them with their peers. I also read about a magnificent book by Harvey Daniels on this approach. However, I was so busy with my fifth graders that I couldn't find time to read the book. (I have it on my summer reading list.) Instead I went online and found some incredible resources. I was able to use those sites to get started with Literature Circles in my classroom. This is my fifth month of using this approach, and I am very happy with the results. In addition to Literature Circles, I've been doing shared reading and guided reading with my students. They are also reading their own books at home and keeping reading logs about those books. In this article, I will discuss how I manage Literature Circles in my classroom and how these reading groups have had a positive impact on my students.
I begin setting up my Literature Circles by choosing 5 books for my class. I try to choose award-winning texts with a wide-range of difficulty. I stay away from books like Harry Potter because most of my students will read them on their own. I try to choose classics such as Where the Red Fern Grows and other books that lend themselves to good discussion.
After choosing five books, I obtain five copies of each one. It's been easy for me this year because we received a large supply of wonderful books to use with our fifth graders. We have about 10 copies of each book. Therefore, I haven't had to do much searching in order to find 5 copies of the books I'm using for Literature Circles. If you don't have access to such resources, finding the books you need can be time-consuming but well worth the effort.
When I have my five books ready, I present them to the class. I read the back of the book aloud, tell them a bit about the author, and pass the books around so they can see the cover. I also talk with them about how to choose a book. It's important that they choose one that interests them, but they also need to make sure it's not too hard for them by using the "five finger" rule. If you're not familiar with it, this is simply when a student opens to any page in a book and counts the words they don't know. If they find more than five unfamiliar words on the page, the book is probably too hard for them.
After the students choose their books, they are given a reading assignment and a role sheet to complete by the next week. The role sheet has a place for the pages assigned and the date due. They are to keep track of this sheet over the next seven days. I use half sheets, so many of my children use the sheets as bookmarks in order to keep from losing them.
The amount of reading assigned depends on your group of students. I usually give my fifth graders 50-70 pages to read each week. This gives them time to continue with their own reading. When I first started Literature Circles, I did a page check each day. I would simply go through my list and ask my students what page they were on. I had to do this to get them used to breaking up their reading in order to be prepared for the meeting. I found that the "page check" helped to hold them accountable by having them spread their reading throughout the week rather than trying to get it all done the night before. Time-management is an important study skill that most of my students are still trying to develop.
I hold all of my meetings on one day. Some teachers meet with one group each day of the week. I tried that, but it didn't work for me. I found that having all of my groups meet on one day helped them remember the day they were supposed to be prepared for the meetings. I can simply write on the board "Literature Circle Meetings Wednesday" and most of them will be prepared. When I met with a different group each day, it seemed that they always forgot it was their day to meet. In addition, scheduling a quiet time for the meeting each day was sometimes difficult. Holding all of the meetings in one day takes me from an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half. I simply schedule this block in my lesson plans as a quiet work period for my students. This way I can meet with all of the groups and pass out new roles for next week's meetings without interruption. I keep the rest of the class quiet by giving team points after every meeting.
When I first started using this approach, I was about to create my own student role sheets when I found Laura Candler's site. She had all of her role sheets online, and they were based on the book by Harvey Daniels. I was elated! I used the sheets she developed for several weeks, and then I created my own based on the needs of my students. I made a few adjustments, and I'm happy with the results. I made one major change: I replaced the role of the Illustrator with that of the Reporter. Here are the five roles I use for Literature Circles along with a description for each role:
Discussion Director---This child is responsible for coming up with the discussion questions for the selection. Writing questions that incorporate higher-order thinking can be difficult for many children and requires a lot of practice. I give the children lots of examples and I do several minilessons on writing effective discussion questions. The Discussion Director uses the questions during the meeting to encourage discussion among the members of the group. These questions should not limit discussion; other issues may be discussed as they arise. This child serves as the leader for the entire meeting, making sure that every child has a chance to participate.
Word Wizard---This student is responsible for analyzing unfamiliar or especially challenging words in the selection. The student is to identify three difficult words, guess what they mean, and then actually look them up in the dictionary. The student also includes the page numbers where the words can be found so the members of the group can discuss the words in the context of the selection.
Literary Luminary---The person who has this job is responsible for choosing two passages from the reading selection to share with the group. These passages may be chosen because the Literary Luminary finds them interesting, humorous, or notable in some way. The Literary Luminary can share these passages with the group by choosing someone to read them aloud or by reading them aloud to the group. He must explain why he chose the passage, and the other children are given the opportunity to make comments or ask questions.
Connector---The Connector is in charge of sharing the connections he made as he was reading the selection. These could be text-to-self, text-to-world, or text-to-text connections. After sharing his connections, he gives the rest of the group time to share any connections they made as they read the text.
Reporter---This student is responsible for summarizing the selection read. This can be difficult because the reading for the week will often consist of several chapters. The Reporter has to summarize the main events that happened in the story. After sharing the summary, the Reporter encourages group discussion and clarification if needed.
Teacher as Facilitator
My main role is that of facilitator rather than participant. However, I did act as a participant more often during the first few meetings. Although I didn't want to jump into the conversation, I sometimes had to clarify things or make comments in order to help the discussion stay on track. After the first few meetings, the need for my input lessened dramatically. I was finally able to sit back and watch as they discussed their novel. Five months later, I could let them meet without me, but I won't because I need to observe their interactions in order to make sure they are comprehending their novels. In addition, my presence at the meetings holds them accountable for their roles. I'm sure they are more thoroughly prepared for their meetings each week than they would be if I weren't actually watching and listening.
The children run the weekly meetings themselves. I simply call them over to my table so I can be there with them as they meet. The Discussion Director is in charge and usually starts the meeting by sharing the discussion questions and by giving everyone the chance to respond. This is usually the longest part of the meeting. After the questions have been discussed, the Discussion Director chooses the next person to speak. They usually simply take turns by going around the circle. This makes the discussion run more smoothly. When all roles have been discussed, the children put their Literature Circle sheets in their reading portfolios, and I assign the reading selection and roles for the next week.
Some teachers meet with their students more often to discuss their current novels. I have found that meeting every Wednesday works best for my students. It simply depends on your students and the amount of time you have to spend on Literature Circles each week.
I take a grade for Literature Circles at each meeting. This grade is based on whether or not they are prepared on their meeting day. First, they are expected to be done reading the pages assigned. Second, they must have their role sheet completed thoroughly. Finally, they must have their book with them. (The children use the books throughout the meeting to discuss the text, so each child must have the book.) If I am convinced that a child is completely prepared for the meeting, they will receive a 100 for that meeting. In order to receive the 100, they must also participate by making comments and asking questions throughout the meeting.
I don't do traditional paper/pencil tests for the books my children read in Literature Circles. I simply observe the meetings and read the sheets the children fill out each week about the book. My students also have reading logs that they complete as they finish a chapter in the book. This reading log consists of a two-sentence summary and a connection about the text.
Reasons for Literature Circles
I enjoy using this approach for several reasons. I feel that children need to have opportunities to choose their own books. I want my students to choose books that interest them and challenge them. I want them to be be truly engaged in their novels. Literature Circles give them the opportunity to do be challenged and engaged while holding them accountable for their reading. This student-centered approach to reading instruction has a positive impact on my students.
I feel that children need to collaborate with their peers about their novels. I want my students to have the opportunity to participate in "book talks" in which they discuss what they're reading. By participating in Literature Circles, children have a chance to analyze what they've read with a group of their peers, and this discussion enhances their understanding and appreciation of the story.
In addition to raising the level of student engagement, peer collaboration, and reading comprehension, Literature Circles give my students the opportunity to develop important time-management skills that will help them in future years. Children need to learn what it means to be prepared for something on a particular day. At the beginning of the year, I found that many of my children were not prepared on the day of the meetings. Many of them were not breaking down the selection and reading it throughout the week. This would result in them being unprepared on the day of the meeting. Now many of my children actually finish their selections a day or two early. This gives them plenty of time to complete their roles sheets and prepare for the meeting. It was difficult for many of them at first, but now 90% of my students are prepared for their meetings each week. The time-management skills they are developing now will help them when they move on to middle school and have to balance numerous assignments and tests.
Finally, this approach gives my students the opportunity to develop the skills they need to be successful readers. The students gain valuable experiences as readers as they play one of the five roles each week. They begin to internalize the roles and strategies for comprehension because they become so familiar with them. I've seen some of my students sharing connections and discussing the text with their peers even when it's not their day to meet. I've also noticed students using dictionaries to broaden their understanding of the text even when it's not their turn to be the Word Wizard. I've seen these strategies spill over into the content areas as well. By mastering these five roles, the students learn to summarize, to make connections, to increase their vocabulary, and to appreciate literature while reading a selection. I will use my state standards for reading and language arts to list some of the skills that children can develop by participating in Literature Circles:
- Students develop vocabulary by reading independently.
- Students develop vocabulary by listening to, reading, and discussing both familiar and conceptually challenging selections.
- Students use resources and references and context to build word meanings (for example, dictionary, thesaurus).
- Students use a variety of criteria to choose own reading (for example, author's style, themes, knowledge of genres, text difficulty, recommendations of others).
- Students understand the development of plot in grade-level or higher level story.
- Students understand how conflicts are resolved in a story (including but not limited to problem, solution or resolution).
- Students make inferences and draws conclusions regarding story elements of a grade-level or higher level text (for example, the traits, actions, and motives of characters; plot development; setting).
- Students know that the attitudes and values that exist in a time period affect stories and informational articles written during that time period.
- Students identify and uses literary terminology appropriate to their grade level (including theme, simile, alliteration, metaphor).
- Students understand how the author's choices of language (for example, sensory words, vocabulary choice) and story structure (for example, rhymes, story patterns) contribute to the overall quality of a literary work.
- Students respond to literature by explaining how the motives of the characters and the causes of events compare with those of own life.
- Students use specific information from text to support ideas about content in literary texts (for example, advancing judgments; referring to text, other works, other authors, nonprint media, and personal knowledge to support ideas).
- Students listen attentively to the speaker (including but not limited to making eye contact and facing the speaker).
- Students use strategies to respond to speakers (for example, asking questions, paraphrasing to confirm understanding, summarizing, making contributions, offering feedback).
- Students ask relevant questions and make comments and observations (for example, giving feedback; drawing conclusions; reflecting on information; clarifying understanding of content, processes, and experiences.)
- Students use discussion strategies (for example, acting as a participant and leader; organizing information for a group; using evidence to support ideas).
As you can see, students are given the opportunity to develop many reading and language skills when they participate in Literature Circles. In addition to developing these skills, my students are also developing a love for literature. They are reading books that interest them and conferring weekly with their peers. From comments they have made, I gather that most of my students truly look forward to their weekly meetings. Of course, the first few meetings were difficult, but now they seem truly engaged as they discuss their reading selections. They seem to enjoy sharing their roles with their peers and "taking charge" of the discussion group while I sit back and observe. Literature Circles give students the chance to play active roles in their learning. By providing them with student-centered reading instruction, I feel that I'm giving them the room they need to grow as readers and thinkers.
In this article, I've shared with you one teacher's approach to Literature Circles. I'm certainly not an expert; I'm just a teacher trying to do what is best for my students. I'm still adjusting routines and searching for ways to help my students improve their meetings each week. I continue to do research in order to improve as a teacher, and I challenge you to do the same. If you do an online search on the web, you'll find many articles and sites on Literature Circles. (I'll list my two favorites at the end of the article.) You can also read the book by Harvey Daniels that I'll be reading this summer.
Does this sound like something you'd like to try? Go for it! Of course, it will take some extra time and effort in the beginning, but you'll see the results in the end. Please remember that your children's discussions may be quite simple at first. It may take them a few meetings to feel comfortable enough to venture into conversations that require higher-order thinking. It may also take several minilessons for them to learn how to write effective discussion questions. I had a lot of trouble when I first started, but I didn't give up. I kept trying, and my hard work paid off. My students are making excellent progress in the area of reading due to this approach. Give it a try and yours will too!
Here are two sites that I think you'll find extremely helpful as you get started with Literature Circles:
Literature Circle Resource Center
Laura Candler's Literary Lessons