Using Group Discussion to Engage Striving Readers
In their purest form, literature circles are meant to introduce students to the joy of reading a book and talking about it with others, while developing and practicing the skills and strategies used by good readers. Over the past decade, literature circles have become a popular tool for teachers who are looking for creative ways to actively engage their students in reading.
Literature circles and the engaged reader
Literature circles have proven to be an excellent way to re-engage disenchanted, reluctant and struggling readers. Well-run literature circles readily meet the needs of the reluctant adolescent learner. They are authentic in nature, collaborative and highly social as students work together to enjoy and deepen their understanding of a book of common choice. Students are given opportunities to not only talk about what they are reading, but also to challenge each other’s thinking, collaborate, debate and discuss. Students rapidly become engaged because they are active participants in their own learning; there are no right or wrong answers and it is the student who is at the heart of the learning process, not the teacher. This type of learning environment successfully nurtures both engagement and motivation in adolescents. Literature circles also address the need for a sense of belonging and recognition as students explore their own feelings and values. When students can engage in books of personal interest in a circle of their peers, they feel that sense of belonging while also learning to respect the feelings and values of other students through authentic situations.
Students who are provided with time to discuss their opinions are better able to make connections, less likely to jump to conclusions, and in turn are more thoughtful and strategic about their reading. Proficient readers ask questions as they are reading to construct meaning of the text. The structure of the literature circle requires the reader to ask questions while they are reading. In addition, the group discussions send the reader back to read the next section with individual purpose. As a reader starts to ask questions while reading, she is accepting personal responsibility for her learning.
This newfound responsibility improves reading comprehension in four very basic ways:
1. The reader is now engaged in meaningful interaction with the text.
2. The reader is now motivated to read in order to answer her own questions about the text.
3. The reader is searching for clarifying information while reading.
4. The reader is now pushed to infer beyond the literal meaning of the text while making connections to what she has already read.
Literature Circles and the Struggling Reader
Literature circles tend to be successful with reluctant adolescent readers because these students have rarely experienced success with traditional reading lessons and are therefore more open to trying a new approach. Everyone has a different role and has the opportunity to offer valued insight to the group discussions—an experience many struggling and reluctant readers have never had. Literature circles promote purposeful thought and discussion which develops higher-order thinking skills in students.
While the teacher is not an active participant in the literature circle, he/she plays a vital role in the success of the activity. Pre-teaching for success through the modelling of a whole class literature circle is necessary. Literature circles must be well-planned on the part of the teacher. Constant observation and interaction with each group is required as this helps not only assess the students but also determine the next instructional steps. On the off meeting days, mini- lessons should be taught to address the needs that have been identified during the group meetings.
Conducting an Effective Literature Circle
While many variations of the literature circle exist, the features outlined below should be considered in order to engage and motivate struggling readers.
Roles and Role Sheets
The use of roles and role sheets, while sometimes frowned upon in literature circles with proficient readers (because they remove some of the spontaneity inherent in the exercise), can be very productive when used with readers who are struggling, reluctant or just disengaged. These roles can enhance the student experience, particularly with students who struggle with initiating their own learning. Roles can provide clarity and direction without hijacking the intent of the literature circle when careful consideration is used by the teacher. Roles should not be assigned by the teacher; students should be allowed to choose their role with teacher guidance. If more than one student in a group is interested in a role, the teacher may have to help negotiate who will get the role. Students should also decide if they will rotate roles periodically, , or if they will have the same role for the duration of the literature circle. Depending on the class, roles might be something used for the first literature circle, but not for subsequent ones. It is essential that the teacher does not gain control of the learning through the use of roles, but rather uses them as a guide to help the students evolve as they engage in their literature circles.
If the class is multilevel, not ability-streamed, the use or non-use of roles should apply to all students.
The following are the roles frequently used in secondary literature circles. Brief descriptions are included as guidelines only. The names and descriptions of the roles can be determined with the students once the teacher has set his/her criteria for learning. Modelling by the teacher is critical so that students are aware of what is expected from each role.
Discussion Director: This role involves creating open-ended questions and facilitating group discussions. The purpose of the questions is to generate deep discussion within the group. Students will require modelling around creating these types of questions and an anchor chart with solid co-created sample questions should be available.
Illustrator: This role requires that key scenes and setting changes from the reading be represented in a visual form. The illustrator may create a drawing or sketch, a collage of images, a model or any other visual representation. The artistic representation should be thought-provoking and students should be given some general guiding questions to assist in their creation, as it is meant to be a discussion point. This is a great role for the artistic student who is not keen on writing.
Literary Luminary: This role requires choosing sections from the reading that will be of interest to the group and will promote deeper discussion. The luminary might include selections that are funny, questionable, unclear, or powerful in moving the plot along or in developing character. The student may choose a quotation or series of critical lines. Again, modelling is important to help the luminary see how his/her selection will impact the depth of group discussion.
Vocabulary Enricher: This role asks the student to select words from the text that are important, unusual, offensive, unfamiliar, or that may seem out of context. The enricher will provide a definition of the word and may also provide substitute words found in a thesaurus. He/she should come to the discussion with a couple of key questions around the author’s choice of the words and suggestions for how they add or take away from the reading. This is a good role for a student who struggles with meaning and/or is frequently absent.
Connector: This role has the student finding connections between the reading and the real world. The connector should be looking for text-to-self and text-to-world examples to bring back to the group discussion. The more connections that can be made to the students’ own real world experiences, the richer the discussions will be. Text-to-text connections may also be made.
Investigator: This role requires investigating background information on topics related to the reading. This might include historical, geographical, cultural, economic or political information. The investigator role can help enhance the meaning of the text for the whole group.
The role sheet is a guideline used to help students have authentic and genuine discussions about the book, and may be altered as needed.
Setting the Stage for Success
In order to ensure that the literature circle experience is meaningful for all students, it is important that the teacher model how a literature circle looks with the whole class prior to students embarking on their first literature circle. The teacher may choose to use a short story or picture book on a provocative topic to introduce the components of an effective literature circle. Group norms and expectations should be established with the students during this modelled literature circle. It is also during this modelling stage that students are introduced to the roles and given the opportunity to test out all the roles.
Avoid assigning required reading as homework; make it a daily part of class so all students are prepared to engage in a good discussion on meeting days.
Book Selection and Circle Groupings
Knowing students likes and dislikes as readers is essential as the teacher decides on the books to offer for the literature circle experience.
Once the books have been selected each book choice should be shared with the students. Book talks are a very effective way to stimulate student interest in the books. The teacher may choose to book-talk specific titles or she may invite “guests” in to do the book talks. The guest list might include the school or a public librarian, other students or teachers who have read the books, administrators, coaches, local celebrities and athletes. Whoever is chosen to conduct a book talk must have read the book and be well-prepared and engaging. Students should then be allowed to interact with the books as they would in a book store, giving them time to read the back of the book, check its length, take a closer look and rank it. Finally, students can rank all of the books in order of their preference.
Literature circle groupings should be based on book choice only; student ability should not be a component of the grouping. Try to limit groups to 3 to 5 members depending on student needs. If the groups get any larger, the chances of students becoming disengaged increases. When grouped based on interest it is amazing how even the most reluctant of students will engage in a positive manner.
For the reluctant reader to engage and use strategies that proficient readers use, she must be able to understand the text well enough to participate in interesting, high level discussions and make connections between self and text.The more connections a reader can make to the text, the deeper her comprehension will be. Engaging quality fiction requires strong and compelling characterization, and realistic experiences that permit the reader to empathize with situations outside her immediate experience. This type of characterization allows the reader to learn and develop through the fictional experiences of the characters.
Literature Circles and Fiction from Orca Book Publishers
The Orca Currents, Orca Soundings and Orca Sports series books are ideal literature circle choices for the reluctant and/or struggling reader. These books meet the criteria necessary to engage students in reading at a level they are able to achieve success at while improving their reading skills. Topics explored in these novels can guide inquiry and promote higher-order thinking with themes which inform the reader truthfully and realistically. Controversial subject matter coupled with authentic dialogue and characters who reflect the experiences of the reader quickly hook reluctant readers. As students rapidly connect to the characters and storylines, they begin to gain deeper comprehension of the text, which opens the door for success as a reader.
The content explored in these books will raise questions that move students beyond the literal interpretation to a deeper, more discerning understanding of the text and stronger connections to the world around them. As they come to identify with the characters, students are eager to discuss character choices and apply the decisions and outcomes to their own lives.