Carmen Gloria Garrido Barra and Elena Quezada Cárdenas
Literature circles are students who gather to discuss a previously agreed story or book. In small groups, students develop cognitive skills in an atmosphere that fosters responsibility, cooperative work, and pleasure for reading.
Choosing the piece of literature
One of the key points in literature circles is choice. Research shows that the stories or books that students find the most interesting are those they have selected for their own reasons. With lower level students, the teacher guides students in selecting their texts. Chia Hi Lin (2004) suggests the following criteria for selecting the reading material. First, the pieces of literature should be comprehensible to students of different abilities and interests. Second, they should reflect the students’ language and skills. Third, they should address issues and topics relevant to the students’ lives. Finally, they should provoke students’ thinking and discussion. It is advisable to start with texts that are one level below the students’ level so that learners feel confident and have time to get used to the way reading circles work.
After the students have selected their story or book, they form groups. Groups can be teacher selected or student selected. In both cases, groups are formed based on the students’ reading interests or the book they have selected. Sometimes, the teacher assigns one or two strong students in each group to help the weaker students take the risk.
For those students with little or no experience working in literature circles, the teacher may need to spend time helping them with some guidelines. Farinacci (1998) recommends discussing the following points with students: how to handle unknown words, how to respond and provide feedback to circle participants, how to select topics for discussion and how to get along as a group. Working together with students to create a set of rules can be of great help. These rules can include listening to understand, respecting each member’s ideas, waiting until the other has finished, staying on topic, sitting so everyone can see each other, etc. Another key point is discussing the importance of preparation. Preparation involves becoming familiar with the text (reading the story outside the class) and the roles in the discussion (completing their worksheets as homework). In class, students discuss the piece of literature and write down new information or ideas they gain from the discussion.
Roles in literature circles
In the circles, each member has a role. Roles trigger participation in the discussion while guiding students on what to do and how to carry out the task. The most common roles are those proposed by Daniels (2002): questioner or group discussion leader, illustrator, passage master, summarizer, vocabulary finder, and connector. The questioner is responsible for developing the questions the group discusses. The illustrator is the one who draws or shares interesting sections of the text. Literary luminary/passage master identifies interesting sections of the selected text for reading aloud. The summarizer is the one responsible for summing up the story. The vocabulary finder looks for words that are new or difficult to understand or words that the student considers important. Connectors make text-to-text and text-to-life connections.
Each role is accompanied by a worksheet that describes the role and provides some clues to carry out the task. For example, for the questioner, the teacher can include one or two sample questions and some spaces where the student can write his/her own questions. Depending on the level of the learner, the teacher can limit the number of lines. For the illustrator, the teacher may write questions such as: why did you choose this part of the text? What does it mean to you? What part(s) of the text does it represent? For the literary luminary/passage master, the teacher explains that it is not necessary to tell everything, but passages that are relevant for the student. In this role, students are asked to explain the reasons for choosing the passages and they can ask other members for help with difficult passages. It is the summarizer’s task to prepare a brief summary of the story. Beginners can write down four or five sentences with key points in the story or the teacher can guide them by asking some questions. Finally, connectors are responsible for finding connections between the chosen text and the real world. The teacher can ask the student to find at least two connections between the text and his/her own experiences and then the group makes comments and can add their own connections.
Before students select their roles, the teacher presents and explains each role (and the worksheets that accompany each role), one at a time. Then, the students have some time in their groups to think about the different roles and to ask questions.
Working with literature circles
The implementation of literature circles should be student-centred, therefore, the role of the teacher is to monitor and not to become part of the discussion. While monitoring, the teacher writes down comments related to how students work in their group. This information can be discussed in a feedback session. In this session, students have the opportunity to self-evaluate their performance, evaluate the performance of the whole group and of each member. In this way, reading circles not only help to foster pleasure for reading but also help students to develop abilities to work cooperatively.
Literature circles offer a great opportunity to foster pleasure for reading and at the same time, they develop social and cognitive skills. In their literature circles, students create connections, discuss, and negotiate ideas in an environment that is structured to promote their independence.
- Burns. B. (1998). Changing the classroom climate with literature circles. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 42(2), 124-129.
- Chia-Hui, Lin. (2004). Literature circles. Teacher Librarian, 31(3), 23-25.
- Daniels, H. (2002). Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. Second Edition. Portland: Stenhouse.
- Farinacci (1998). We have so much to talk about: implementing literature circles as an action research project. The Ohio Reading Teacher, 32(2), 4-11.
Carmen Gloria Garrido Barra is an English teacher at Universidad del Desarrollo in Chile. She has taught English as a foreign language at different levels (primary, secondary and tertiary) for more than 20 years. She holds a Master’s degree in Education and is interested in methodology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Elena Quezada Cárdenas is an EFL teacher who works with beginners, intermediate, and advanced students of English as a foreign language. She holds a diploma in Teacher Development for Language Education. Elena has been teaching English for more than 20 years. She can be reached at email@example.com.