Literature Circles

(Descriptions and strategies for using this powerful program

from Literacy for the 21st Century, 3rd Ed. by Gail E. Tompkins.

Merrill Prentice Hall, 2003)


One of the best ways to nurture childrenÕs love of reading is through literature circles.  Students meet in small groups to read and discuss self-selected books.  This is a new kind of Òreading group.Ó


The characteristics of literature circles are:


1)    Students chose their own reading materials from books assembled by the teacher.

2)    Students form small, temporary groups, based on book choice.

3)    The small groups read different books.

4)    Groups meet regularly according to schedules that students set up to discuss their reading.

5)    Students make notes to guide their reading and discussions.

6)    Students choose topics for the grand conversations and ask open-ended questions during the discussions.

7)    Teachers are facilitators, not group members or instructors.

8)    Teachers evaluate literature circles by observing students during group meetings and with information learned through student self-evaluations.

9)    The classroom is a community of learners, and students are actively engaged in reading and discussing the books they are reading.

10) After reading a book, students share with their classmates, and then choose new books to read.


Key Features of Literature Circles:

            As teachers organize for literature circles, they make decisions about choice, literature, and response.  They structure the program so that students can make choices about the literature they read, and they develop a plan for response so that students can think deeply about books they are reading and respond to them.

¯  Choice:  Students make many choices in literature circles.  They choose the books they will read and the groups in which they participate.  They share in setting the schedule for reading and discussing the book, and they choose the roles they assume in the discussions.  They also choose how they will share the book with classmates.


¯  Literature:  The books chosen for literature circles should be interesting to students and at their reading level.  Books that are likely to lead to good discussions have interesting plots, richly developed characters, rich language, and thought-provoking themes.  The books must seem manageable to the students, especially during their first literature circles so teachers may wish to choose shorter books at first.  ItÕs also important that teachers have read and liked the books because they wonÕt be able to do a convincing book talk if they havenÕt.


¯  Response:  Students meet several times during a literature circle to discuss the book and extend their comprehension of it.  Through these discussions, students summarize their reading, make personal and literary connections, learn vocabulary, explore the authorÕs use of story structure, and note literary language.  Students learn that comprehension develops in layers.  From an initial comprehension gained through reading, students deepen and expand their understanding through the discussions.  They learn to return to the text to reread sentences and paragraphs in order to clarify a point or state an opinion.  Students need many opportunities to respond to literature before they will be successful in literature circles.  One of the best ways to prepare students for literature circle discussions is by reading aloud to them every day and involving them in grand conversations.


Circle Talk:

            There are four kinds of ÒtalkÓ that take place during literature circles:


  1. Talk about the book  Children summarize their reading and talk about the book by applying what they have learned about the structure of stories and other texts as they:

q  Retell events

q  Identify main ideas

q  Summarize the plot

q  Discuss characters

q  Examine the setting

q  Explore themes and symbols


  1. Talk about the reading process:  Students think metacognitively and reflect on the process they used to read the book as they:

q  Reflect on how they used strategies

q  Explain their reading problems and how they solved them

q  Identify sections that they reread and why they reread them

q  Talk about their thinking as they were reading

q  Identify parts they understood or misunderstood


  1. Talk about connections:  Students make connections between the book

and their own lives as well as to other literature they have read as they:

q  Explain connections to their lives

q  Compare this book to another book

q  Make connections to a film or television show they have viewed


  1. Talk about group process and social issues:  Children use talk to organize

the literature circle and maintain the discussion.  They also use talk to

examine social issues and current events related to the book, such as

homelessness and divorce, as they:

q  Decide who will be group leader

q  Determine the schedule, roles, and responsibilities

q  Draw in nonparticipating students

q  Bring the conversation back to the topic

q  Extend the discussion to social issues and current events


Roles Students Play in Literature Circles:


Discussion Director:             The discussion director guides the groupÕs

discussion and keeps the group on task.  To get

the discussion started or to redirect the

discussion, the discussion director may ask:

á      What did the reading make you think of?

á      What questions do you have about the reading?

á      What do you predict will happen next?


Passage Master:                    The passage master focuses on the literary merits of

the book.  This student chooses several memorable

passages to share with the group and tells why he or

she chose each one.


Word Wizard:                       The word wizard is responsible for vocabulary.  This

student identifies four to six important, unfamiliar

words from the reading and looks them up in the

dictionary.  The word wizard selects the most

appropriate meaning and other interesting

information about the word to share with the group.


Connector:                            The connector makes connections between the book

and the studentsÕ lives.  These connections might include happenings at school or in the community, current events or historical events from around the world, or something from the connectorÕs own life.  Or the connector can make comparisons with other books by the same author or on the same topic.


Summarizer:                         The summarizer prepares a brief summary of the

reading to convey the main ideas to share with the

group.  This student often begins the discussion by reading the summary aloud to the group.


Illustrator:                             The illustrator draws a picture or diagram related to

the reading.  The illustration might relate to a

character, an exciting event, or a prediction.  The

student shares the illustration with the group, and the

group talks about it before the illustrator explains it.


Investigator:                         The investigator locates some information about the

book, the author, or a related topic to share with the

group.  This student may search the Internet, check an

encyclopedia or library book, or interview a person

with special expertise on the topic.

Implementing Literature Circles:

            Students begin by selecting books, and then as a group they establish a schedule for reading and discussing the book.  Students may meet with or without the teacher for these discussions.  After reading, students create projects to share their books with the class.  These literature circle activities involve all five stages of the reading process:


1.         Prereading: 

Teachers prepare text sets with five to seven related titles and collect six or seven copies of each book.  Teachers give a brief book talk to introduce the new books, and then students sign up for the book they want to read.  Students need time to preview the books.

The books in the text set vary in length and difficulty, but students are not placed in groups according to reading level.  Students choose the books they want to read, and as they preview the books, they consider how good a ÒfitÓ a book is, but that is not their only consideration.  They often choose the book they find most interesting, but just as often choose the book that their friend has chosen.  They might choose a book because they recognize that more supportive classmates are in that group.

There are usually not more than six or seven students participating in each circle.


2.         Reading:

            Students read the book independently or with a partner, depending on the difficulty level of the book.  It is possible for students to listen to a book at the listening center if they cannot read the book themselves.  Students have the schedule they developed so that they know when they have to complete each reading assignment and be ready to participate in the discussion.  After reading, students could prepare for discussion by writing in reading logs, making lists of unfamiliar words, etc.


3.         Responding:

            After reading the first section of the book (or the entire book if it is a picture book), students meet to talk about their reading.  They participate in a grand conversation.  The group discussion director begins this open-ended conversation by asking, ÒWhat did you think?Ó  Student also write in reading logs during this stage.


4.         Exploring:

            Literature discussions extend into the exploring stage of the reading process.  After students share their responses, teachers often teach minilessons.  They may focus on an element of story structure, provide information about the author or the genre, or teach a literacy skill or strategy.


5.         Applying:

            Students create a project after they finish reading the book.  Sometimes they plan a simple way to share the book with the rest of the class.  At other times they may choose to develop more extensive projects.  They also meet with the teacher to evaluate the literature circle, the book, and their participation in the group.


Monitoring and Assessing StudentsÕ Learning:


There are a variety of options for monitoring studentsÕ work and assessing their learning during literature circles.  Here are some of them:


1.         Observing students:

Ÿ  Observe students collaborating with classmates

Ÿ  Observe students reading independently

Ÿ  Observe students participating in discussions

Ÿ  Observe studentsÕ sharing of books and projects


2.         Monitoring studentsÕ progress:

Ÿ  Monitor studentsÕ schedules and assignment sheets.

Ÿ  Monitor the sheets students complete for their roles in literature circles


3.         Assessing studentsÕ work:

Ÿ  Assess studentsÕ reading log entries

Ÿ  Assess studentsÕ projects


4.         Examining studentsÕ reflections:

Ÿ  Read studentsÕ self-assessment letters

Ÿ  Examine studentsÕ responses on the self-assessment checklist

Ÿ  Conference with students about their assessment.


Benefits of Using Literature Circles:

1)    Students view themselves as readers.

2)    Students have opportunities to read high-quality books that they might not have chosen on their own.

3)    Students read widely.

4)    Students are inspired to write.

5)    Students develop reading preferences.

6)    Students have many opportunities to develop critical and creative thinking.

7)    Students learn responsibility for completing assignments.

8)    Students learn to self-assess their learning and work habits.