I just finished up my second year of experimenting with lit circles (reading groups). I say experimenting because I still have a lot to perfect, but even still, I’m definitely convinced that doing literature circles is a beneficial and maybe even vital part of our language immersion curriculum.
Lit circles have a number of benefits:
- Students choose their book out of 5-6 choices, so there is a higher level of interest and engagement than if the teacher requires them to read it.
- Students choose a book at their level, so the texts are differentiated and level-appropriate.
- Students actually finish a whole book. Sadly, I find that this is rare nowadays, as standardized tests require focus on skill work and not on the enjoyment of a full story.
- Students have autonomy to make decisions as a group and enjoy learning together.
I did lit circles with my Spanish Language Arts II class. Most students have been in the Dual Language Immersion program for 10+ years, but there is a huge range of language abilities (heritage and non-heritage speakers) and reading levels. When I originally set them up, I wanted a way for students to read texts that were at their level while still being able to focus on teaching aspects of literary analysis. As a new teacher with few resources for heritage speakers, I was able to scrounge up a few titles of different books that had been done in other classes and didn’t need to get permission to order a whole class set of new books. Sometimes availability of resources drives our curriculum decisions…
Choosing which books to use
I wanted the books to have something in common that connected them. I was able to find enough varied books that had to do with immigration that I created these lit circles within a larger immigration unit. While it might not be entirely necessary to have books about a common theme, it did provide students with concrete examples of immigration issues that they could later draw from.
It was important to have books that would interest my reluctant readers who were mostly boys, so I made sure to have two books with male main characters. I also wanted my more advanced students to be better prepared for later taking the AP Spanish Literature course, so it was important to have a book that would be a challenge for even my highest students.
Does the teacher have to read all of these books?!
Ideally, yes, the teacher will have read all of the books and be very familiar with them before starting the unit in order to better help students and make sure that they are appropriate for students. Realistically, if you are teaching lit circles for the first time, reading five new books while planning a new unit is probably not possible. Try to choose books that you’ve read already, that your colleagues recommend and can tell you about or that you can skim quickly. You could also offer less choices.
Introducing the unit
Before starting the unit I introduced it to students by reminding them that by participating in lit circles they were being given a higher level of responsibility, choice, and leadership. I explained the benefits of lit circles and the real world applications and made sure they understood the importance of choosing a book that they would be able to be successful with. I made a short presentation with a summary of the book, the reading level, and what type of reader it might be a good book for. I had copies of the books on hand and passed them around for students to take a look. Students voted for their first, second, and third choice on a Google Form.
When forming groups I aimed for at least four students but no more than 6. I made every effort to make sure that students received their first or second choice. This year so many students wanted one book that we ended up having two groups doing the same book. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, both years I’ve had students make very appropriate choices in terms of books that correspond to their reading abilities.
Once groups are formed they have their first meeting to take a look at the book and create their calendar. They are given a paper calendar with dates over about a month and a half that lit circles will meet and also the date of the final exam. Students are the ones who decide how many pages they need to read before each meeting and divide up the whole book at the beginning.
Group Roles and Meetings
In addition to reading the necessary pages students were required to have a role for each meeting. Depending on the size of the group the roles were Leader, Questioner, Summarizer, Theme, Connections, and Vocabulary. Each of these should take no more than five minutes for students to prepare. I stressed to students that this was a way to prepare them for a productive conversation, but the conversation was the most important part. Students were given specific directions on how to hold a productive conversation and what steps were involved. Everyone received a meeting tracker sheet where they would write down what pages they needed to read for the next meeting and what role they had to prepare. The color-coded sheets were in folders in the back of the classroom so students could grab whatever they needed for their role before each meeting.
At the end of the meeting the leader lead the group in filling out the group evaluation sheet to let me know how they did. While I circle the room during lit circles, it’s impossible to be everywhere at once, so this helped me keep tabs on the pulse of each group. It also helped groups better prepare for their group observation where I observed one whole discussion that groups received an oral grade on.
Throughout the unit I taught various mini lessons about literary analysis which students applied to their books and discussed in their groups. We looked at things like conflict, theme, plot and symbolism.
We also looked at the influence that the author’s life had on their writing, as many of the books were semi-biographical. This was also important because I wanted to hook students on doing more choice reading. If students liked their lit circle book then they would be more likely to pick up another book by the same author or a similar subject.
Even though I didn’t give any other homework besides reading during lit circles, some students were still begging for more time to read during class. A few students who had the longest book had trouble finishing it because it was long, and they didn’t have enough time to read in class.
Since the lit circles were part of a bigger unit about immigration, I tried to position the non-fiction part of the unit on days that we didn’t do lit circles. Unfortunately, this got very messy and disjointed and it was hard to have enough time for reading. In the future I think I’ll just do a shorter unit within a unit of lit circles.
Many of the groups had excellent college-level conversations about what they were reading. Another group had trouble keeping all of their members sitting together for 10 minutes and remembering to bring their materials to the meeting. Sigh. I think next year I’ll spend more time at the beginning talking about what a productive conversation looks like and what basic things students need to do to be successful. Even with the challenges, doing lit circles will definitely be part of my curriculum from now on.
My lit circle sheets are available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store