Love Reading – Literature Circles

STX Engelsk A/B
Sahar Shanazi, Vicki Bjerre og Morten M. Pedersen, Aarhus Katedralskole

Disclaimer: Literature Circles is not my own brainchild, but something which has made the rounds at my school over the last couple years. I have, however, just tried the concept to great effect in my second year English class and consider it one of the most successful modules in my recent career.

Basic Concept: Personal Responsibility for Cooperative Learning

The concept is simple. Groups of 4 students meet regularly to discuss a novel of their own selection. In the beginning of the module each group selects the novel that they would like to read. They then make up their own reading schedule which will allow them to finish the novel by a due date set by the teacher. At a session in the literature circle each participant in turn performs a specific group role: summarizer, passage picker, discussion leader, story/text connector, real life connector and/or illustrator. Each literature circle is given access to a shared folder/google doc where they upload written assignments the night before the next session.

Each session of the literature circle develops according to a fixed “playbook” which ensures that all students participate equally. The concept is obviously based on the principles of Cooperative Learning and may at first seem excessively rigid. In reality, however, there is a great deal of freedom for the students to work within this rigid framework. The fixed structure very quickly makes it clear to the students how vital it is for everyone to commit to their role in order to make the group function.

You can find all details about the concept, assignments and roles in this presentation: Literature Circles – Concept and Group Roles

Thoughts on Group Formation

In order for the literature circles to be successful, I think it is vital to spend time on careful group creation. I chose to match the students in each group as evenly as possible with regards to 1) academic level and English proficiency and 2) perceived social cohesion and level of participation. After creating groups on my own I asked some of the other teachers involved with the class for input and adjusted the groups accordingly. This strategy turned out well, as most groups performed more less as expected and seemed to be at ease with each other.

I did make one exception to the rule of using academic level as the first principle and based one of the groups entirely on their (virtually non-existing) level of participation. My hope in doing this was that it would force them to step up and take some responsibility – which didn’t really happen although their final oral presentation did exceed expectation.

On Book Selection

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I gave the students complete uninhibited access to all novels available at the book depository at my school. One of the most interesting aspects of this was that, not only were they all really exited about being free to choose a novel, they also (intuitively or with very little guidance) selected books that matched their English proficiency quite well. The selected novels listed in order of difficulty were:

  1. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  2. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (my main concern as this was chosen by intermediary group)
  3. Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster
  4. Big Mouth Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates
  5. The Body by Stephen King
  6. The Snapper by Roddy Doyle

Organisation 

To give students sufficient time to engage with their books, I decided to divide course lessons into two parallel modules alternating between ‘Language and Grammar Days’ and ‘Literature Circles’. In total,  I allocated 8 lessons to the project: 6 sessions for discussions in individual groups and 2 lessons for preparing/giving oral presentations and evaluation. 

At each group session I set aside roughly 75 minutes for the students’ discussion leaving 15 minutes for peer evaluation.  

For convenience each group of students receive a set of Responsibilty Area Cards – basically small format reproductions of the slides explaining their roles.  This makes is easy to switch roles at the end of a session – and remember  tasks for next time. 

Results

In the evaluation at the end of the module, students responded enthusiatically with zero negative feedback (that’s a first!): “It was really great that we could plan our own workload,” “It didn’t feel like we were doing homework,” “It was nice to have an actual conversation – in English.”

My main concern going into this project was whether the students would rise to the occasion and take the responsibility needed for the work. I must say that most of my fears turned out to be completely unwarranted. Most groups worked conscientiously and well for the majority of the module. Of course not all deadlines on written assignments were met, but the individual literature circles seemed to work very well.

In ordinary lessons it is often a challenge to make the students speak English all the time. In this module, however, all groups appear to have spoken English most of the time – although for obvious reasons it was impossible to monitor at all times. Particularly groups with intermediary levels of English proficiency seem to have benefitted a great deal.

A Piece of Advice

Remember to book group rooms ahead of each session and make sure you know where your students are – unless you thrive on physical exercise…

Downloads

Literature Circles – Concept and Roles Presentation
Peer Evaluation Sheet (Print)
Responsibility Area Cards (Print and Laminate)

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