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Literature Circles: Why You Need Them and How to Scaffold Them

April 27, 2020

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern, with contributions from the writing team of Pathways 2.0

My first taste of literature circles came in sixth grade, when our teacher put a list of five books on the board. The book we chose, she said, would form the group with whom we would share and discuss that text for the next few weeks. That kind of educational choice was thrilling, and the three books I read in literature circles that year—Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; The Call of The Wild; and The Giver­—are among those that I remember most vividly from my entire English education. Not only that, but when my friend in a different circle praised the book she was reading, I checked that one out from the library too, and A Wrinkle in Time is still one of my favorite novels.

Student choice is one of the most powerful elements of a literature circle. We all know that student choice begets student buy-in, which begets student engagement. Literature circles are the perfect example of structured choice: their choices from the prepared book list neatly divide them into groups, and they experience a “choose-your-own-adventure” and rich discussion in the company of their peers.

Another perk of literature circles is how well they align with the gradual release of responsibility model integral to Pathways 2.0. Literature circles provide more student ownership than guided reading, but less autonomy than independent reading: the perfect stepping stone to self-directed learning!

Here are three ways to scaffold literature circles: before, during, and after.

  1. BEFORE: Prepare adequately

Especially in the younger grades, students won’t understand the specific reading strategies you want them to discuss. So model those strategies—predicting, clarifying, etc.—with a whole-class text, such as the trade books which form the center of our themed Pathways 2.0 units.  

Educator Elena Aguilar prepared her students for five months by reading aloud daily and discussing the importance of reading and what it meant to be a reader. She modelled strategies for the class and held a guided practice literature circle where students worked in groups, but all groups read the same novel. This is a great strategy for younger students or those just being introduced to the small group discussion format, because the teacher can easily pull it back for a full-group clarification if needed. No matter what introduction you choose for your literature circles, make sure you ease into it gradually.

  1. DURING: Start with roles, and then let them slip away

Discussion Director, Super Summarizer, Word Wizard, Artful Illustrator … Using roles keeps discussions on track, ensures equitable participation, and introduces strategies for interacting with a text. When students focus on only one strategy at a time, they’ll get more practice and feel more confident with it.

But after a unit or two, it can feel too restrictive to maintain these fixed roles. Students also might miss themes or important passages if they’re too focused on finding all the vocabulary words in their role as Word Wizard. So for experienced students, consider dissolving the roles. Teacher Addie Williams noted that without roles, students “are all given the same guidelines and requirements for each [literature] circle meeting where they are required to come prepared with discussion questions and more!”

  1. AFTER: Take away reflection training wheels

In my AP World History class, we analyzed a set of historical documents each week, using strategies such as sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization. At the beginning of the year, when our teacher wanted us to contextualize, he’d write a specific question to prompt our thinking. But come second semester, those questions were gone, replaced by one word: “Contextualize.”

Figuring out and answering our own questions was hard, but it helped us take ownership of our reading and prepared us for higher-level analysis. Consider doing the same with your roles or strategies: as the year progresses, stop feeding students the question prompts for strategies such as predicting or connecting. This way, students rely on their own intuition as readers, not the directives of the instructor, helping you achieve that gradual release of responsibility.

Scaffolding, although it can be scary, is just a matter of gradually increasing what you expect students to be able to produce. In Pathways 2.0, literature circles “provide for a focused examination of text while elevating student thinking, reading, and writing.” Use Pathways 2.0 to introduce your students to the wonderful power of literature circles!

What are your strategies for implementing and maintaining literature circles?