“Did you do the reading?” I asked one of my best students.
She hesitated. “A little. I kind of skimmed it. I get it. I just don’t like it.”
I considered this. If she hadn’t done the reading, I doubted many other students had. “Well, Brave New World isn’t really a book you read to like,” I said carefully. “It’s making a point. You read it because it makes you think.”
This concept was lost on my class. All they knew was Brave New World had long chapters, complex language, and was about something that made very little sense to them. Why should they spend hours of their free time trudging through it?
If we want our students to be readers and thinkers, they have to actually read. But how can we get them to read novels that they see as outdated and uninteresting?
Some say the solution is to abandon the classics and teach only recent YA novels. What if we could find a way to engage students without abandoning the classics? Or introduce them to a topic authentically (without a PowerPoint)?
Literature circles provide a way for students to engage with the curriculum, without being spoonfed information.
How to Level Up Your Curriculum With Literature Circles
What Are Literature Circles?
Literature circles are choice novels that students read alongside a small group of students. They then discuss these novels in book club-style discussions.
To do literature circles well, teachers should curate a collection of novels for each unit and allow students to choose from among those novels.
Groups should consist of 4-6 students.
How Much Class Time Does it Take?
Expect to devote about 30 minutes a week to literature circle discussion groups.
The novels that you choose for literature circles should be easily accessible. Students should be able to read and understand them without assistance or scaffolding.
If you work in a school where students rarely (or never) do homework (I’ve been there), you may choose to embed SSR time into your class daily. This would mean as a part of your daily routine, your whole class would spend 15-20 minutes reading silently. I suggest having this as an entry routine. Students come into class, grab their books, and begin reading until the timer goes off.
Why Do Literature Circles in High School?
Research has found that: ‘”regardless of what you read, the more you read, the better you get. And the better you get, the more you like it. The more you like it, you feel competent at it, and it’s this virtuous cycle. [Reading becomes] something I do, that my friends do”’ (Boudreau, 2021). If we want our students to become readers, they need to read. Literature circles get them reading.
Here are some of the other benefits:
- Build Engagement
- English teachers have all faced teaching a novel that students just didn’t connect with. History, science, and math teachers have experienced teaching a topic that students didn’t get or care about.
- Day after day, you struggle with students who haven’t read or don’t care. Literature circles allow students to read novels that they can engage with alongside a more difficult topic.
- It gives students a connecting point so they come to class excited about the topic you’re teaching.
- Student Choice
- Students choose which novel they will read when doing literature circles. This takes away the feeling of being forced to read. Instead, they are choosing what to read.
- Whole Class Participation
- Literature circles require each and every student to read and participate in a discussion. This way, your whole class is actively reading and learning.
- Develops Literacy Skills
- With large class novels, some students can get left behind and even get away with never reading. With literature circles, your students will be reading more and building literacy skills like they never have before.
- Bridges Students’ Understanding
- Literature circles can help students access a more complicated novel by providing background knowledge on a topic or structure of writing.
- Authentic Discussion
- Literature circles teach students to authentically discuss what they have read in “book club format.” Students learn to engage with reading and discuss it with peers naturally.
How to Do Literature Circles with High School Students
Step 1: Create a set of novels
Create a set of novels for your class to choose from by deciding what you want literature circles to help students learn.
If you’re a history teacher and you’re starting a World War II unit, you may want your students to read novels from different perspectives during World War II. This will help give your students background on the war and will create robust opportunities for discussion later on.
If you’re an English teacher and you’re beginning a unit on Brave New World, 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale, you can build a collection of YA dystopian novels to help your students understand and discuss the concept of a dystopia.
What Not to Do: Don’t create a random collection of novels that don’t connect to anything or drive your curriculum forward. Yes, your students will be reading, but reading for a purpose is much more meaningful and is the type of reading that you want as a part of your curriculum.
Step 2: Allow Your Students To Choose a Novel
Introduce each novel to your students. You can show a book trailer. (Protip: Do a book trailer as a project at the end of your literature circles to build your collection for future classes.) As an alternative, put the books in the center of each group and have your students do stations where they look over the book and read the first few pages.
Do a first, second, or third-choice form or allow your students to choose any novel and have multiple groups. This depends on the number of novels you have available for student use or if you’re allowed to require students to purchase them.
Step 3: Create a Reading Plan & Assign Roles
In groups, your students will break up the reading, deciding on when to read what.
They will also assign roles to each member of the group. Groups should be no more than 5 students.
- The Questioner – Creates questions to keep the discussion going.
- The Quote Master – Notes and brings in specific quotes of interest from the reading.
- The Connector – Finds outside materials (art, visuals, videos, etc.) that connect to the reading.
- The Linguist – Finds and looks up key terms from the reading.
- The Equalizer – Makes sure everyone participates in the discussion equally.
Students will rotate roles after each discussion.
Remember: The goal is for your students to take ownership of this process, so stand back and let them make the decisions.
Step 4: Read & Discuss
Have set days for literature circle discussions. Ideally, one discussion a week. Encourage your students as much as possible to read their books to prepare for the discussion.
Step 5: End With a Project (optional)
If you want to end with an assignment, have students create a book trailer or book talk that you can use with future classes to introduce to your literature circle novels.
Grading Literature Circles
Often by the time students are in high school, everything is attached to a grade. If we don’t grade it, students won’t do it. But assigning a point value to a discussion seems punitive. And your goal is for the discussions to be as organic as possible.
My suggestion is to have each student complete a self-assessment at the end of the unit. They can reflect on their own participation and give themselves the grade they deserve.
“When students set goals that aid their improved understanding, and then identify criteria, self-evaluate their progress toward learning, reflect on their learning, and generate strategies for more learning, they will show improved performance with meaningful motivation.”(McMillan & Hearn, 2008)
Not only is self-assessment a valuable learning tool, but it also keeps them more accountable than you can during this process.
So allow your students some choice in the novels they read and use them to move your unit forward. Because discussing a book that no one has read or a topic that no one cares about isn’t helping anyone.
Need help implementing literature circles? No problem. We have everything you need in our Teachers Pay Teachers store. Don’t forget to subscribe to our email list to keep up to date with all of our new resources.
McMillan, J. R., & Hearn, J. (2008). Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement. Educational HORIZONS. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ815370.pdf
Boudreau, E. (2021, November 12). Literature Circles. Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved April 5, 2023, from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/21/11/literature-circles#:~:text=Literature%20circles%20%E2%80%94%20a%20small%20group,because%20they%20are%20incredibly%20effective.