Lately, everywhere I turn teachers are talking about literature circles–and for good reason! If you’re looking for a way to create rigor in your classroom and to cultivate authentic, real-life skills in your students, then literature circles may just be the activity your curriculum needs!
In this blog post, I’ll cover everything you need to know about literature or lit circles.
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What is a Literature Circle?
Simply, in a literature circle, students discuss a piece of literature together. Usually, this is done in small groups.
Traditionally in English classes, the whole class reads one literary work together. The students may complete several assignments around the text before completing a final essay or project as a capstone to the unit.
In a literature circles unit, however, there may be several groups of students with each group reading a different novel. These groups of students study, read, and work together to understand their text.
The level of structure in a literature circle will vary, but they usually include some structured and some unstructured discussions amongst students.
Are Literature Circles Effective?
At the time of writing, literature circles are considered to be one of the best practices for teaching secondary English and are gaining in popularity.
Literature circles combine some of the most effective teaching strategies we know of for language development: independent reading, collaborative discussion, and student-centered learning.
Lit Circles Encourage Choice
A benefit of literature circles is that they encourage student choice.
We know that when students feel that they have a say, they are more engaged. Allowing students to choose their text allows them to feel more empowered and involved in their own learning.
Literature circles also allow students some time for unstructured conversation around literature. Answering worksheet questions will get wearisome for even the best of students, but highly engaging conversations about interesting texts never get old.
Lit Circles Can Be More Authentic Ways of Interacting with Texts
One of the great features of literature circles is that they mirror the way readers actually interact with the texts that they read.
Literature circles invite students to discuss, question, and debate literature the same way that adults in a book club might.
While reading worksheets might be an effective way of making sure students read, they don’t mirror real life. When have you ever put down a great book in your adult life before immediately starting a book report on it?
The traditional assignments teachers often give students work for accountability, but they rarely instill the kind of routines and habits that lifelong readers use to stay lifelong readers.
Lit circles, however, can do this. They encourage authentic engagement with a text.
Want to learn more about the pedagogy behind literature circles? Here are some of the best professional development books on this topic:
Literature Circles Vs. Book Clubs
Literature circles and book clubs are similar in many ways:
- Lit circles and book clubs provide students with choices
- Both provide opportunities for small group discussion
- Both involve a variety of core texts in the classroom instead of a single novel or literary work
But there are some key differences. Literature circles tend to be more structured with a focus on an academic outcome than book clubs.
In a literature circle unit, students may only have three or four novels to choose from. Their groups might be anywhere from five to ten students. All of the novel choices will share a key quality such as a theme, historical time period, or author.
In a book club, students might have more than ten different novel choices that vary greatly. These novels may or may not have a unifying characteristic. Student groups may be as small as three or four students.
Usually, book clubs are focused on getting students to engage with and enjoy a text. Alternatively, literature circles are more focused on getting students to analyze a text.
Therefore, book club discussions may be more unstructured and less focused (“Who’s your favorite character?”).
Literature circle discussions will be more structured and focused on literary craft (“Which characters are dynamic and which are static?”)
How Do You Conduct a Literature Circle?
Every teacher will, of course, have his or her own way of structuring a literature circle. If this is your first time, however, it may help to have a few steps to follow.
Here’s my advice for creating and conducting literature circles. (But don’t be afraid to add your own flair to your lit circles unit!)
Step 1: Decide on Your Academic Goals
First, you should know why you’re conducting literature circles. What skills or topics are you trying to teach? Knowing the end goal will help you select novels that will support your educational mission.
If your only goal is to teach a standard or skill, then you should choose novels that will serve this purpose. For example, if you want students to practice writing personal narratives, assign memoirs.
But if you’re using a literature circle to teach a genre, your novel choices should all be from that genre. For example, if you’re teaching a dystopian unit using lit circles, you’ll obviously choose books from the dystopian genre.
Let’s say that you wanted to teach a social justice unit in your English class. (I highly recommend this! Social justice gets my students engaged and talking every time!).
If your unifying concept is social justice, then you’ll obviously want to choose novels with a social justice theme.
In my Black Lives Matter Social Justice Literature Circle bundle, I niched down even further and focused on the Black Lives Matter Movement.
I decided to include The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and All American Boys. Together they offered a variety of protagonists, story lengths, and Lexile levels.
When choosing novels, give as much variety as possible.
Step 2: Choose a Summative Assessment
A summative assessment is any final assignment that is meant to demonstrate mastery of a skill or concept. This could be an essay, a test, or a project. (I’m a fan of authentic assessments as summative assignments.)
Will your students be completing a literary analysis essay at the end of their literature circles? Completing a formal discussion? Will they present a speech?
You always want to lesson plan with the end in mind. Once you know what the students’ final outcome should be, then you can plan backward.
What skills will need to be taught? How much time will you need to give them to work on this final project?
For example, when designing my Black Lives Matter Social Justice Literature Circle Bundle, I knew I wanted students to deliver a speech. A speech, after all, is a powerful way to speak out against social injustice.
I wanted students to research an injustice that spoke to them. At the end of the quarter, they present a speech on it to the class.
Once I knew that students would be giving a speech, I made sure to provide time every week for students to research, outline, and practice their speeches.
Step 3: Determine the Level of Structure for Your Literature Circles
We’ve already discussed that literature circles will be more structured and more analytical than a book club. But even within the realm of literature circles, some are more structured than others.
The amount of structure will inevitably affect the type of assignments students complete.
One less structured method could be to have all students working on the same assignments but responding with content from the novel they chose.
For example, maybe one week you present a mini-lesson on characterization and then students analyze the protagonist from their novels specifically.
The advantage to this is that you have to prepare less. All the students get one lesson and one assignment.
The disadvantage is that you aren’t able to really dig into the nitty-gritty of each novel with the students that are reading it.
For you type-A teachers, you could create assignments specific to each novel. For example, each student will have reading questions to answer specific to the novel that he or she is reading.
Obviously, this will take way more prep time on your part. But students will be able to dive more deeply into the novels that they read.
In my Black Lives Matter Social Justice Literature Circle Bundle, all students will complete the same general assignments: reading questions, quizzes, writing prompts, book discussions, etc. But each assignment is specific to the novel that each student is reading.
This way, each student is doing work individualized to his or her novel of choice, but the grade book is still essentially the same for each student.
Step 4: Create A Calendar for Reading and Discussing
Once you have the books, the summative assessment, and the lessons and assignments for students along the way, all that’s left to do is plan with a calendar.
This will vary greatly depending on the ability of your students, the lengths of the novels, and how much homework time you are comfortable assigning. If students will be doing all of the reading in class, you may want to opt for shorter books or do a graphic novel lit circle instead.
Obviously, different students will read at different paces and groups with longer books may take more time to finish than groups with shorter books. Keep this in mind when planning group and whole class activities.
If you’re planning a unit that will take a whole quarter (nine weeks of instruction time), aim for about five weeks of reading. This will give you one week to introduce the literature circles and for students to choose their novels and two weeks to wrap up the unit and complete final assessments.
From there, you can break up each novel into five mostly equal parts. For example, if Group A’s book is 250 pages, they’ll all need to read 50 pages each week. Group B’s book might only be 200 pages, so they’ll need to read just 40 pages each week.
Be very clear with your expectations for reading. How much will students need to do outside of class? How much time will they be given to read during class? I recommend giving them a calendar or list of deadlines with the expectations on it.
You’ll also need to decide how often the literature circles will meet. I recommend letting them discuss their novels at least once a week. This will keep students accountable for their reading and provide some intrinsic motivation to keep them going with the unit.
Running Literature Discussion Groups
What will you have students do when they meet with their groups? That’s up to you!
You may want to provide students with a list of questions to answer or conversation starters. If your students are fairly independent, they may not need these; they might be able to jump into a discussion on their own!
I recommend, however, not dictating every moment that students discuss together. The magic of literature circles happens when student conversation goes “off script” and they begin to explain confusing areas to one another or naturally debating the author’s intent.
We want to encourage students to come up with their own questions or goals for their discussions. One of literature circles’ greatest benefits is independent learning!
It’s wise to provide students with literature circles roles and goals, however, to keep students on task. We all know how easy it is for students’ conversations to stray away from the main objective.
Literature Circle Group Roles
Google “Literature Circles Roles” or “Student Roles” and you’ll come across all kinds of creative roles for students to undertake while working together. The title of the job isn’t important; what matters is that each student feels responsible for the success of the group and feels included.
That said, here are some basic roles that you can let students assume during their group meetings:
- Facilitator: The facilitator guides the conversation, reads the questions aloud to the group, and keeps the discussion moving forward.
- Timekeeper: The timekeeper makes sure that the group doesn’t spend too much time on a single question or task. He or she sets limits to the discussions and gently lets the group know when it’s time to move on or when time is running out.
- Recorder: The recorder acts as the group’s scribe, writing down collective answers or taking notes on the group’s big ideas.
- Encourager: The encourager makes sure that everyone is heard and given opportunities to share. During discussions, the encourager will make a point to specifically ask quiet group members for input or deliberately make sure that everyone has shared an idea before the group moves on.
- Summarizer: The summarizer takes everything that group members have shared, summarizes it, and helps the recorder decide what to write down.
There are, of course, many more roles that you could create. (A fun option to add might be an Illustrator, who creates sketch notes of the group’s discussion!)
Roles may also vary depending on any tasks you give student groups to complete or depending on the book that students are reading.
Make sure that students rotate through the group roles so that they have a chance to try a variety of different leadership tasks.
It’s ok for there to be double roles in large groups, too. For example, a six-person group may want two Recorders who take turns writing down responses.
How Long Should Literature Circles Last?
This will vary a lot depending on the length of your class, the length of the novels, and the outcome goals of the literature circles.
If students are reading full novels independently, I think you will probably need at least a full nine-week quarter for this. Especially if you are teaching other skills or concepts during the unit.
If you’re in a model that has A and B days, in which you only see your classes every other day, you may even want to stretch literature circles out to a full semester.
But, if your students are doing literature circles around graphic novels or short stories, you could easily cut down a literature circle to just a few weeks. It all depends on how independently your students will be working.
Use your best judgment. I always recommend leaving a “buffer week” for any unit planning. If you do this, you should be able to adjust a little as you go.
In my Black Lives Matter Social Justice Literature Circle Bundle, I recommend completing the unit over the course of nine weeks: one week for a unit introduction, five weeks for reading and crafting speeches, one week for final book discussions and speech practice, and the last week for presenting speeches. Plus the magical buffer week!
The unit bundle comes with a suggested pacing guide, but even that would need to be adjusted by the educator according to the needs of his or her students.
A Final Word on Literature Circles
If you want to give students choice, increase student independence, and reinforce a variety of skills and lifelong learning habits, then literature circles are the way to go!
Ready to try literature circles, but intimidated by the amount of prep work that they seem to need? Try my done-for-you, print-and-go (or upload-and-go!) Black Lives Matter Social Justice Literature Circle Unit.
It includes everything you need to teach three Black Lives Matter-inspired novels, a speech project, and supplemental activities. Check it out here!