Kathy G. Short
Readers need time to read intensively for reflection and critique as well as to read extensively for enjoyment and information. When they have the opportunity to converse and dialogue about what they are reading, readers are able to explore their “in-process” understandings, consider alternative interpretations, and become critical inquirers. Literature Circles provides this time and opportunity by inviting readers to:
Engage in small groups to provide more opportunities for dialogue;
Share individual connections and in-process thinking;
Consider multiple interpretations through talk with other readers;
Dialogue about specific tensions and issues that emerge from the group discussion;
Critique “what is” and ask “what if” about life through dialogue around literature.
In these ways, Literature Circles support reading as a transactional process in which readers actively construct understandings of a text by bringing meaning to, as well as from, that text.
By participating in Literature Circles, readers come to understand that there is no one meaning to be determined, but many possible interpretations to explore and critique. The primary intent of this engagement is providing a space for readers to learn about life through multiple perspectives, not to learn about literary elements or comprehension strategies.
Shared Book Sets (multiple copies of a particular book) that support conversation and dialogue or Text Sets of 10-15 conceptually-related picture books
Literature logs, chart paper, art materials, etc. for response.
1. Organize literature related to a particular theme as either Shared Book Sets or Text Sets. A Shared Book Set contains multiple copies of the same text. Each small group reads a different shared book set related to the same broad theme. Text Sets are sets of 10-15 conceptually-related picture books that are connected to a broad theme.
Introduce students to the selections through short book talks and give them time to browse the books. Create ballots on which students list their first and second choices and use their choices to organize the students into heterogeneous groups of 4-6 students.
Have the students read the books and prepare for literature discussion.
Students reading chapter books should determine how many pages to read a day in order to finish the book in one or two weeks. Reading goals that are not completed at school are considered homework. Students meet in a mini-circle for 10-15 minutes daily to check in with each other on their reading goals and share connections and confusions.
Students who are unable to read the book can partner read with another student from the group or listen to an audio-recording of the book.
c. Young children who may not be able independently read the more complex picture books that support literature discussion can have the books read aloud to them by a teacher, an older buddy reader, a family member, or an audio recording. Young children benefit from hearing the book read aloud several times. One option is to have the books read aloud at home for several days before the school discussion.
As students read, they can respond by writing or sketching their connections and wonderings/tensions to be ready to share with group members. The responses may be in a literature log, on post-its placed in the book, or on a Graffiti Board.
Encourage students who finish reading ahead of the rest of the group to read from a set of books thematically related to their Literature Circle books.
Once students have completed the book, they meet in literature circles for extended discussions. These discussions typically occur after students have read the entire book. Students may need to meet in literature circles along the way if a chapter book is particularly difficult or if students need to process the book as they read because of their struggles as readers or as language learners. Literature circles typically last anywhere from two days to two weeks, depending on the length of the book and the depth of the discussion about the book. The discussions are open-ended and provide time for readers to share their initial responses with each other and then dialogue about several issues in more depth. As part of these discussions, students often:
a. Begin by sharing their thinking about the story, including initial interpretations, personal connections, stories, and retellings of favorite or confusing parts. They may want to use a particular response engagement such as Sketch to Stretch (see 2.11, this text), Save the Last Word for Me (see 3.13, this text), or a drama strategy (see 5.10, this text) to facilitate this sharing.
b. Create a Web or Consensus Board to brainstorm the issues that they could explore further from this book or set of books, based on their initial sharing. They identify a focused issue that is an anomaly or tension and that they want to inquire about together as a group.
c. Engage in Text Set discussions by intially having each student read one or two books from the set and then meet to share and retell their books. Students often move between reading and sharing/retelling for a week or two and then web the connections and differences across the books in their set. They choose one of these issues to discuss in greater depth through inquiry and critique.
d. Prepare for the discussion of the identified tension/issue by rereading sections of book, writing or sketching in their logs, placing post-its to mark relevant quotations, engaging in further research, or using a particular response engagement such as Save the Last Word for Me (see 3.13, this text), Sketch to Stretch (see 2.11, this text), or Tableau (see pg. 240, this text).
e. Students share their ideas and connections related to the identified tension/issue and engage in dialogue around differing interpretations and perspectives.
f. Students can continue their literature circles by returning to their web multiple times to identify another issue or tension for discussion.
g. You do not need to be in a group, but if you join a group, participate as a reader and group member, sharing connections and tensions
7. When students complete their Literature Circles, presenting the key ideas from their discussions will support them in pulling together their thinking about the book or text set. They may share informally by talking about their book and showing their web of connections and issues. If preparing a formal presentation, have them list the most important ideas they want to share with others about their book and discussion and then brainstorm different ways to present these ideas, choosing the one that best fits the ideas they want to share.
The texts discussed in a Literature Circle can be in different sign systems, including music, visual art, dance, mathematical problems, or drama, or in a range of language genres, including fiction, poetry, nonfiction, newspaper articles, oral stories, etc. Students engage in the same process of sharing their initial connections, exploring multiple interpretations, choosing an issue for in-depth inquiry, and using dialogue to think collaboratively.
The discussions in Literature Circles are more complex and generative if teachers embed these circles within a broad class theme, such as identity or journeys, around which are planned a range of engagements, including class read-alouds of novels and picture books and browsing of other books on that theme. This theme may be connected to a unit of inquiry within the class curriculum or to issues students are exploring in their lives.
Literature Circles may initially be whole class read-aloud discussions to provide demonstrations of the talk. A whole class book may also occasionally be the focus. Whole class books provide a shared history within a classroom but eliminate choice and so should be used only occasionally and discussed in both whole group and small groups to provide for more participation.
Literature Circles can be organized as Book Clubs where the same groups of students stay together over time, selecting the books they want to read and dialogue about together. These books may not relate to a broad class theme but to the group’s own history of reading and discussing with each other.
For More Information
Rosenblatt, L. (1938). Literature as exploration. Chicago: Modern Language Association.
Peterson, R. & Eeds, M. (1990). Grand conversations. New York: Scholastic.
Short, K. & Pierce, K. (1990). Talking about books. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Shared Book Sets of Picture Books on the Theme of Journeys
Altman. L.J. (1995) Amelia’s Road. Ill. E. Sanchez. New York: Lee & Low.
Brown, A. (2001). Voices in the Park. New York: DK.
Bunting, E. (1998). Going Home. Ill. D. Diaz. New York: HarperCollins.
Burningham, J. (1987). John Patrick Norma McHennessy: The Boy Who Was Always Late.
New York: Knopf.
De Deu Prats, J. (2005). Sebastian’s Roller Skates. Ill. F. Rovira. LaJolla, CA: Kane/Miller.
Egan, I. (2007). The Pink Refrigerator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
McKissak, P. (2001). Goin’ Someplace Special. Ill. J. Pinkney. New York: Atheneum.
Miller, W. (1999). Richard Wright and the Library Card. Ill. G. Christie. New York: Lee & Low.
Santiago, C. (2002). Home to Medicine Mountain. Ill. J. Lowry. San Francisco: Children’s Press
Steptoe, J. (1986). Stevie. New York: HarperCollins
Wheatley, N. (1994). My Place. Ill. D. Rawlins. LaJolla, CA: Kane/Miller.
Wild, M. (2006). Fox. Ill. R. Brooks. LaJolla, CA: Kane/Miller.
Wyeth, S. (2002). Something Beautiful. Ill. C. Soentpiet. New York: Dragonfly
Shared Book Sets of Chapter Books on the Theme of Journeys
Almond, D. (1999). Skellig. New York: Delacorte.
Cameron, A. (2005). Colibri. New York: Laurel Leaf.
Creech, S. (1996). Walk Two Moons. New York: HarperCollins.
Curtis, C. P. (2007). Elijah of Buxton. New York: Scholastic.
de Mari, S. (2006). The Last Dragon. New York: Miramax.
Maclachlan, P. (1993). Journey. New York: Yearling.
Park, L. S. (2002). When My Name Was Keoko. New York: Clarion.
Pullman, P. (1996). The Golden Compass. New York: Knopf.
Ryan, P. M. (2005). Becoming Naomi Leon. New York: Scholastic.
Schmidt, G. (2004). Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. New York: Clarion.
Spinelli, J. (2004). Wringer. New York: Harper.
Stolz, J. (2006). The Shadows of Ghadames. New York: Yearling.
Yumoto, K. (2005). The Friends. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.