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Tips for Using Literature Circles in the High School Classroom

Posted by Emily Guthrie on Jun 14, 2013 12:50:32 AM

Today’s strategy spotlight is on literature circles.  I’ve used this technique in my 9th grade English classes to differentiate lessons in order to meet the needs of students struggling to keep up and those needing an extra challenge.  There are many ways to implement literature circles to accommodate for a range of reading levels, class size issues, English learners, and other common classroom needs.  I’m going to share the way it works in my classroom based on my needs, but I’d love for you to leave a question or comment at the end of this post to continue the conversation as it relates to classrooms across the board!

What are literature circles?

  • Students select a book of choice from a controlled range of options.  
  • On regular intervals, students meet with a small group of peers who are reading the same book.
  • During the meetings, each student has a role to present, which helps bring out discussion of characters, plot, theme, and literary devices. In addition to grade level reading standards, this strategy also ensures that students are continuing to grow in their speaking and presentation skills.

 Why I use literature circles:

  • I teach 9th grade English in a school that has an average of 50 feeder middle schools.  Students come to me with a wide range of experiences and abilities.  (I know I'm not alone here, right!?!). Literature circles help me to differentiate curriculum without compromising the academic rigor of my class.
  • I find that giving students choices in what they're reading leads to increased motivation and engagement.

Tips and Recommendations for Using Literature Circles in High School Classrooms

How I use literature circles: 

  • Step 1: Lay the groundwork. This is an optional step that I find useful for younger students.  I read a single novel with the class and in the course of teaching, go over the literature circle roles as a whole class.  I use To Kill a Mockingbird as my initial novel and once a week we all do one role.  In other words,
    • Week 1: All students write discussion questions and practice leading a discussion with a small group.
    • Week 2: All students look for literary devices and present them to peers.
    • Week 3: All students create art based on the novel and then a few students volunteer to justify their pieces to the class.
    • Week 4: All students look for vocabulary words.
    • Week 5: All students do contextual research.
    • Going over the roles as a class helps to scaffold the expectations for the real literature circles coming up. With older or advanced students, this type of preparation may not be necessary. The literature circle roles are not the major focus of the initial unit, but they pop up about once a week as a homework assignment so that the next unit flows smoothly.  For the majority of my TKAM unit, I use a variety of activities and assessments from the Simply Novel To Kill a Mockingbird Teaching guide.
  • Step 2: Pick literature circle books and introduce them to the class.  I like to work around a theme and give a variety of texts that will be accessible for some and challenging for others.  I use books related to the themes of racial tension and injustice in order to build on the To Kill a Mockingbird unit (Here is my list). Before students select novels, I give a brief overview, including disclaimers for some of the more controversial topics.  For example, I let students know that The Color Purple deals with abuse in case some students aren’t emotionally ready for that content.  I also give them an idea about which books are more challenging to read so that they can select a book that is appropriate to their own level.  Very rarely I have to directly suggest that a certain pupil select a certain book.  For the most part, they understand which level and content is right for them.

SmartFlip Common Core Reference Guides

  • Step 3: Students set up a schedule and pick roles.  After students have selected a book, I help them join groups of 3-5 students who selected the same book.  If I have a situation where only one student selects a particular book, I require them to switch.  When there are more than 5 students interested in a particular book, I break them into 2 groups.  When the groups are formed, students must make unanimous decisions about their reading schedule and roles for each meeting.  They must have both parts approved by me prior to the first meeting. 
  • Step 4: Have the meetings!  Each meeting day, students pull desks into small groups and present their roles to their classmates.  I walk around and listen in on conversations and collect all work at the end.
  • Step 5: Since all students are reading books around a theme, you can create writing prompts, class discussions, and other projects that relate to the overall theme of the unit!

Are you using literature circles in your classroom or considering them for next year?  We'd love to hear your version, roles, questions, or comments.   Leave us a comment and we’ll be sure to start our own discussion right here!  Be sure to check back all year long for more teaching strategies and fun freebies from Simply Novel!

Topics: literary analysis, Literature, literature, literature circles, reading strategies, teaching reading, teaching tips, tips, high school English

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