The Benefits of Literature Circles in the High School Classroom

In this article, I will discuss the basics of literature circles in the classroom and how you can use them to help motivate your students to be reading on their own in the classroom.

Oftentimes as English teachers, we struggle with motivating our students to read for pleasure. It can seem like a pretty daunting task sometimes to get students excited about classical literature, such as Julius Caesar or The Odyssey. However, as English teachers, it is our job to teach our students not just classical literature, but also modern texts. More importantly, our job is to instill in them the value of learning and reading. This is why literature circles are so important and essential in the classroom.

Firstly, let’s discuss the value of independent reading. In many schools, early elementary students as well as middle schoolers are required to do independent reading and take tests, such as AR (Accelerated Reader) tests, to ensure that they are reading on their own. However, once students get to high school, the responsibility rests in them to continue reading on their own. Us being the busy teachers that we are, it is often difficult for us to find time to encourage students to read on their own when we have novels to read, assessments, and state standards or Common Core to align with. However, if we incorporate a little bit of this in our classrooms every day, this will not only help students be motivated to learn, but will also help them improve reading comprehension, knowledge, and actually aid in analyzing and understanding literature.

The basic idea of literature circles is to get students thinking critically about what they read, but also about showing what they know. It is an opportunity for them to showcase their talents and also grow to appreciate the value of independent reading and project based learning. This affords teachers the ability to assess students in a variety of ways, giving it a more student-centered approach. This gets us out of the trap of giving students a bunch of paper pencil tests to assess their knowledge of a text and instead providing them with real, valuable instruction that will benefit them for years to come. The following is five-step process that will help you successfully set up literature circles in your classroom.

The first thing that is crucial to setting up literature circles is to let the students choose what they would like to read. This is essential because it will give students more intrinsic motivation; they will actually yearn to read every day and finish their book. Student interest really helps motivate students to learn and prevents students from complaining about something boring that they can’t even relate to. Students will ultimately pick a book that is catering to their own interests and needs. In my classroom, I usually pick a wide selection of books and then have the students “preview” the text. This entails that they read the back cover of the book, and maybe even look at the first chapter to see whether or not they would be interested in reading the book. Then, I take a look at student ratings of books and decide which book is the best fit for each student. I am also open to suggestions for literature circle books from my students and take these things into consideration when choosing book sets for my classes.

Students should be placed in groups with the students who are reading the same novel as them. I usually like to keep it as 5 to 6 members per group to ensure that there are enough people in the group to participate and have meaningful discussions about the literature. Another great strategy to try is to jigsaw the groups every once in a while, meaning you will group every student together with someone reading a different book, and then they can discuss and explain the book they have been reading to others who have not read the book. This will afford students the opportunity to demonstrate what they know to other students and might also get other students interested in reading another book. In addition, you can have students compare and contrast their books or discuss common themes they found in their novels.

One of the most crucial aspects to making literature circles work is to make sure that everyone has something to contribute to the group. This doesn’t mean giving the students a lot of “busy work”. What this means is that all students are able to use their own talents, ideas, and creativity to bring something unique to the group dynamic. For instance, if you know a student that takes art and is really great at drawing, you might encourage them to draw pictures of scenes that they have read in the book. Maybe someone else in the group is good at video editing and they want to make a video about the book. The point is to find a collaborative project or product that all students can become involved in that will accurately showcase their unique skills and abilities, while also explaining what they learned from the novel. I usually like to give students suggestions for projects that they can do, but letting them choose what option they would like. This gives them independence and freedom to do what they like with the project.

One of the essential elements of literature circles is the discussion piece; every day or however many class periods you choose to do literature circles, students should be discussing what they have read with their group. To extend their understanding and make connections with other classmates, opening this discussion up to the whole class will also be beneficial. Maybe there are some common themes or topics that students can discuss about each novel. One idea might be to put the common ideas or topics in a hat and have students draw a topic at random. Then, the class must discuss how that idea or topic relates to their book and discuss the similarities and differences between the books they are reading. They may also want to connect the idea or topic to something that is happening in their lives right now. This will create meaningful discussions in the classroom setting.

Lastly, in order to keep students engaged in what you are doing, make sure you keep up to date with current teaching trends and things that students might be interested in. Instead of having a group make a poster about their project, give them the freedom to showcase what they know by doing something more technology related. Maybe there is a cool app on their phones they can use to create something interesting. There are a variety of different things to choose from, and different avenues you can take with this and the incorporation of technology in your classroom.

In closing, literature circles give students the freedom to express themselves and demonstrate what they know in a more exciting and engaging way in the classroom. This type of project is something that will be valuable to the student and maybe inspire them. Literature circles will keep your students motivated, and they will generally enjoy the set-up of more student-lead instruction, where they have the opportunity to show their unique skills, talents, and abilities to the class. Remember, whatever you choose with these is up to you. You can modify this any way you like, but keep this in mind; our goal as teachers should not just be to teach, but to help instill a love of learning in our students every day. Literature circles will keep students interested and wanting to learn more from you, and that is our highest goal as educators.