As a student, I always dreaded the day when teachers would hand us a novel and tell us to read it and answer the questions given to the class. I would ask myself, “Why do I have to read this book?” I would wonder how the teacher chose a book that I had zero interest in and found extremely boring. Why didn’t he ask what we wanted to read, or what we were interested in? If I read the book, it would usually be just enough to find the answers to the homework questions, and not because I enjoyed it.
Years later as an adult, I am often found wandering around a bookstore. I love to read. I could spend hours walking through the aisles, reading the backs of books to pick the perfect one, or discussing books I have read with friends and family. I often wonder how this huge change occurred in my life. I think a lot of it has to do with choice. No one is looking over my shoulder forcing me to read the book and counting the number of pages I have read. There is no one demanding that I write paragraphs of answers to meaningless questions that I have no personal connection to. Without these stresses I am free to read about topics that interest me. I have found people in my life who also enjoy reading and often find myself engaged in conversations about a book and its connections to our lives. Why wasn’t it like this when I was a student?
“When we invite readers’ minds to meet books in our classrooms, we invite the messiness of human response—personal prejudices, personal tastes, personal habits, personal experience. But we also invite personal meaning.”
~ Nancy Atwell
I want my 3rd grade students to feel connected to the books they are reading. I want them to be able to think critically about the events and ideas therein. I hope that they challenge each other, and make comparisons to other books they have read and to their own lives. I want my students to enjoy reading at a young age and not wait until they are adults to discover the power and magic of books. I’ve come to believe that literature circles are a means to make this happen.
This year I embarked on an action research project where I have been investigating the question, “How do literature circles influence the enjoyment, engagement, and achievement of young readers?” I wanted to allow my students to work with peers, read many different types of books, have proper time to discuss the books, and create projects to demonstrate their understanding. I have listened to the students’ voices during their group discussions and in personal reflections and surveys, to see if their views on reading have changed.
Fountas and Pinnell (2001) define literature circles as a strategy that involves four key elements: reading and thinking about works of literature; collaborating with others to reflect on, analyze, and criticize literature; developing and sharing aesthetic responses to literature; and extending understanding through talk and/or writing. In literature circles, students work with a variety of different books, as well as with a variety of their peers throughout the year. Students are not assigned to a group based on their reading level but instead are grouped based on a common book choice. These small heterogeneous groups are designed to promote discussion by giving more opportunity for each person to talk, providing a natural context for conversation, and encouraging responsibility.
Many teachers use literature circles once a week for a 60-minute period. Although there are many different structures for literature circles, a typical one-hour session may consist of a short strategy lesson from the teacher, followed by group discussion, journal writing time, and a whole group debriefing session (Day, 2002). Each group member is expected to read the agreed-upon amount of the book and complete a journal entry before the literature circle time. The actual reading may take place during independent reading time in the classroom or outside of school as homework.
Most research suggests that grouping students heterogeneously in literature circles is preferable. In an interview, Katherine Schlick Noe, an associate professor at Seattle University who has studied literature circles, stated, “Even students who have difficulty reading every word of a book can learn a great deal from that book when given the opportunity to share insights in a group. The collaboration of the group can be a powerful part of the comprehension process” (quoted in Brown, 2004). The goal is to form small functional groups of 4-5 students reading the same book (Daniels, 2002). These groups are often naturally formed based on their book selection following a short book talk given by the teacher about each text. To ensure each text is accessible to students, an adult or older student may assist in the reading or an audio version can be used.
In beginning literature circles with my third graders, I wanted to give them as much support as possible. Each day we read a new picture book and then all practiced the same role together. For example, one day I read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judy Barrett, a vividly imaginative book about the town of Chewandswallow, where food falls from the sky at mealtime. The students adored this book and couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Each student was given the role of Iguana Illustrator, their creativity soaring as they drew spaghetti rain and pancake mountains. After completing their drawings they met in groups of 4-5 and shared their work, giving them an opportunity to work as a group.
We continued this process each day with a new book and the introduction of a new role. We read Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco to practice the Summarizer role, The Days of Summer by Eve Bunting to introduce the Word Wizard role, The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant to learn the Passage Picker role, and finally The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister to practice the Discussion Director role. Although my students were still full of questions about literature circles, this scaffolding seemed to calm them and give them a better understanding of the process.
As I handed them their first novel, Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice, they cheered. I wanted everyone to read this short chapter book together so that I could assign each student to a group of 4 or 5 students of varying reading levels. Students who struggled with reading were encouraged to read with a buddy. Each student in the group completed the week’s reading, was given a specific role for the week, and completed a role sheet to prepare for their first literature circle discussion. An added benefit of having all students read the same book first was that we were able to focus on the format of a literature circle meeting.
Before our first Friday meeting, I “fish-bowled” a select group of students to demonstrate a literature circle meeting to the class. As the group came together, the Discussion Director took the lead and asked the Summarizer to share his summary. Afterward, all group members had the opportunity to add an additional point. Next, the Discussion Director asked two of her questions and all members responded. The Passage Picker read his selections from the book and everyone had a chance to comment on the quotes. Then, the Word Wizard told the group the word she chose from the book. Each student in the group had a chance to say what they thought the word meant before hearing the definition. Then the Illustrator presented his drawing and the group shared what they thought of the drawing before the Illustrator explained it. The Discussion Director concluded the meeting by posing two additional questions to the group.
After this demonstration, groups migrated to various parts of the room to engage in their own discussions. Students quickly and enthusiastically began discussing the relationship of the main characters and the value of accepting others as they are, among many other topics from the book. In a class debrief session after our second literature circle for this book, one student shared, “I learned that other people understand the story differently.” When we had finished the book, another student excitedly told the class, “I think it’s fun because you get to learn more about how to understand books and you get to share ideas that you have instead of just having to keep them all inside of you.”
The next step was to allow students to choose their book. I first gave a short book talk about each of the three books the students could select from: The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Clearly, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, and 26 Fairmount Avenue by Tomie DePaola. The students were given time to look at the books and then filled out a choice sheet numbering the books in their order of preference. Groups were assigned by choice, and the students could not have been happier when they were given their new book to read. The students were given class time to complete their weekly reading and each Friday the groups had a meeting. Students were consistently excited about their meetings and reflected about their enjoyment of literature circles. One student noted, “It’s not that you are just talking about a book with your friends, but you are talking about a book and understanding the book better and at the same time you are hearing what other people are saying about the book.” For me, these comments and the conversations from my classroom illustrate the power of literature circles in helping students to see other perspectives, articulate their ideas, and build their comprehension of a book by sharing ideas with others.
It seems that there are always struggles that accompany success. Once students began to read the books they chose, they quickly noticed that the difficulty level of these books was higher than the novel we read together. I had purposely chosen more advanced books and I started noticing that some students were not really reading their book. They were skimming the pages or writing down a few points to try to fake their understanding. To address this issue, we had a class meeting and decided that all students should have a buddy from their group. This person would be someone who they could read with or ask clarifying questions to better understand the book. I also offered an audio version of the book to students I knew were really struggling. Finally, I allowed students to take home their books to allow some extra reading time. With these minor adjustments, I noticed that all students were again reading.
I have one student on an IEP that I was particularly concerned about. Tina struggles to comprehend stories and retelling them can be especially difficult. I knew that literature circles could be challenging for her but that the benefits could be equally great. In addition to making sure this student was matched with a buddy who was a strong reader, I enlisted the help of our speech pathologist. She came in each Thursday to help Tina prepare for her Friday meeting. Having this conversation before the meeting really helped to build Tina’s confidence. One Friday after class Tina told me, “When I grow up I want to have my own literature club.” This comment made all the struggles well worth it.
A final challenge was that of managing group work to be purposeful and productive. When students are working in student-run groups, the groups may get off-task, become distracted, or stray far from the book. This problem may come from poor book choices on the part of the teacher, which makes it essential to choose books that students feel are worth reading and worth talking about. Other groups may stay more on topic, but their conversations may be shallow or superficial, relying heavily on facts and lower level thinking skills. When this occurs, the group process often feels mechanical, with members taking turns rigidly with limited interactions (Daniels, 2002).
As we settled into our routine, I began to realize that my students were often talking about the same topic each week. They were only scratching the surface and not diving into the book as much as I’d hoped they would. At this point I stopped to ask myself, “Can a third grader really do everything I’m asking of them? How can I support them more?” I wondered if some of the distracted behavior I was seeing was due to these redundant conversations, if they simply didn’t know where else to go with their discussions. I began to meet with each group during their independent reading time to discuss what was happening in their reading and to help each person take more ownership of their role. This nudge from me, along with help from their peers, helped get their discussions, and the work leading up to them, back on track.
Although there are always ways to improve, I am proud of the progress my students have made. They make connections between books, apply author’s writing techniques to their own writing, and look forward to daily reading time. It is my hope that my third graders will continue to deepen their understanding of books and their love of reading. One parent recently told me that his daughter is now more interested in reading challenging books, and that she seems to understand the book’s main ideas more quickly. I can only hope that one day, as I’m wandering the aisles of the book store, I will run into one of my students doing the exact same thing.
To learn more about Janna Steffan’s on-going research with literature circles, visit her digital portfolio on the HTH GSE webpage: //gse.hightechhigh.org
Brown, M (2004).
Literature circles build excitement for books! Education World.
Retrieved May 6, 2009, from
Daniels, H. (2002).
Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs & reading groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Day, J.P., Spiegel, D.L., McLellan, J., & Brown, V.B. (2002).
Moving forward with literature circles. New York: Scholastic Inc.
Fountas, I.C., Pinell, G.S. (2001).
Guiding readers and writers grades 3-6 teaching comprehensions, genre, and content literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Reed Elsevier Inc. Hill, B.C. (2007). Literature circles and the heart of response. Retrieved May 4, 2009, from