Literature circles- What are they? How can I make them work in my classroom? There is a great deal of information about literature circles on the web. Some say teachers should allow the students to choose their own books. Some say to assign tasks to group members. Some say that worksheets take away from the purpose of literary conversations. We do not claim to have all of the answers. We simply know what works for us in our own classrooms. The following instructions provide the balance that we need in our seventh grade language arts classes. Feel free to follow or tweak the information below to make literature circles work for you.
- Find groups of books that can be used for literature circles. See our list of literature circle titles. Choose three or four titles that you will be using for literature circles over the next few weeks.
- Introduce books through book talks. Show the students the books. Talk a little about the characters, plot, and overall theme. If you have time, allow the students to peruse the books at their desks.
- Provide choice. Give the students a ballot where they can list their first, second, and third choice of book. Tell them that you will do your best to give them their first choice, but in some cases, they may be assigned their second choice.
- Put your students in groups. Try to give them their first choice when possible, but as the teacher, you are aware of who can work with whom and which book may be more suitable according to the reading or interest level. It is ideal to have four or five students in a group, but you can have up to eight students.
- Come up with a reading plan. Decide how many weeks you will spend on these novels. Then, decide how many chapters need to be read in each novel so that all are completed at the end of your allotted time. For example, if you decide that you want to spend four weeks on literature circles, and two of your books have fifteen chapters, one has nineteen chapters, and one has twenty-three chapters, you will have to create a schedule in which the group reading the book that has twenty-three chapters reads more chapters per week than the group that has only fourteen chapters. Your plan will have to ensure that all groups are finished reading in that fourth week. This may mean that those groups with longer books may need additional time to read. They may even need to take their books home.
- Provide reading time during class. Each week, display the chapters that must be read for each novel. Then, provide twenty to thirty minutes at least two days a week to complete that assignment. You may need to provide three days a week. It is pretty much trial and error. You will learn how much time your students need each week to finish the reading assignment. At the beginning of the week, you may have students read with a partner. If you choose to do this, you must tell them to read quietly so that everyone can still focus. The second day, you can have the students read independently. Stress to students that they cannot read ahead. For example, if students are to read chapters 1-4 in the first week, a student cannot read ahead to chapter 5. If this happens, the group discussions do not work as well. Make sure you have work for early finishers. We tell our students that they may read a book of their choice if they finish early. After the allotted reading time, you can continue with other reading or writing activities. In our classrooms, we continue with short stories together as a class after independent reading time is completed.
- Decide on meeting times. Our suggestion is to have groups meet at least three times while reading the book. If you want, however, you can allow students to meet once per week. Prior to each meeting, have each student write one question that they think will generate discussion in the group. Explain to them that yes/no questions generally do not provoke discussion. Practice coming up with good discussion questions together as a class. Use something that you have all read to do this.
- Provide structure for group meetings. During meetings, first allow students to discuss what is happening in the book. Allow them to take turns asking their discussion questions. Walk around to monitor, and tell students that you will be giving a participation grade based solely on their discussions. Once you see that discussion is coming to an end, provide a standards-based handout for your students to work on with a partner within the group. Choose one of the activities in our teaching units, or combine several activities. Once partners have completed the activity, allow the entire group to come together and compare answers. At this point, they may want to change or add to their own answers. Let them know that you are there to help or answer questions if needed. Choose one paper from the group to grade. Make sure students understand that it is their job as a group member to have everything on the paper complete because they will never know whose paper you will choose to grade.
- Throughout the novel study time period, give students the chapter tests to hold them accountable. In order to make sure that all students really are reading and doing their part, it is important to give tests on the novels. Most of our teaching units include three tests. You can have the students take the tests individually and then compare answers with a partner in their group if you want. That way they are doing the work individually but also at times may learn from a peer. Many of our test questions are standards-based, so you need to look over the tests ahead of time, and you may want to create study guides for groups to complete prior to the test. For example, there may be a test question on irony and point of view. Before the test, allow the group to discuss what these terms mean and to discuss them in relation to the novel.
- Use our novel teaching guides to help you with literature circles. We only choose to write teaching guides for novels that we feel are worthy of teaching in our own classrooms. We choose novels that have captivating stories to tell. We look for novels with action, suspense, dialogue, humor, and realistic characters. We then take these novels and create standards-based activities and tests to accompany them. We do this because our job is to create a love of reading in our students, but our job is also to teach a set of core standards. With our novel teaching units, we do both.
Literature Circles using historical fiction novels about the Holocaust
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Number the Stars
The Devil’s Arithmetic
Literature Circles using novels about survival
Island of the Blue Dolphins