Igniting a love of reading through literature circles

One of the biggest successes of the last few years for me has been the growth I’ve seen in students through the incorporation of Literature Circles into our reading day. The type of growth I’ve seen spans both quantitative and qualitative measures, including significant improvements in reading benchmarking scores and individual NAPLAN results. Most important is the growth I’ve seen in student attitudes to reading, ability to think deeply and talk about what they read and make connections to other texts and to the world around them to help them understand both.

So what are literature circles and how have we done it?

There are lots of different ways of going about introducing literature circles and numerous blogs, books and guides on the topic. I’m not a fan of the approach that uses ‘roles’ to introduce students to the concept – I have found, even when used as an initial scaffold, they’re still too restrictive and students tend to get stuck in thinking in set ways.

To begin with, we started with great books. That sounds like a given but there is so much ‘fast fiction’ on the market these days and much of it is specifically targeted at schools. To have really good quality discussions about books, you have to start with really good quality books and here are some of the characteristics to look for:

  • rich vocabulary slightly beyond the level of the intended readers;
  • texts with real life themes that will have students asking and contemplating big questions;
  • complex plots with twists that leave the reader wondering what is coming next;
  • relatable characters with all the wonderful and flawed human characteristics;
  • books that students of this age generally wouldn’t choose for themselves.

While this all might seem like a big ask, there are many, many books out there that fit the bill. There is a list of potential title for consideration at the end of this blog.

Getting started – dangling the bait

One of the differences between excited and flat students when it comes to reading is exciting or flat teachers when they talk about reading. I know that sounds harsh but it makes such a difference – enthusiasm is contagious and a vibe students want to be part of. The first step in our literature circles is giving brief book talks about each title on offer to help students decide which is the right text for them. We tell them a synopsis of what the book is about and the genre, the level of vocabulary they’re likely to encounter, something about the main character and their traits and any connections to other titles (eg, “If you loved watching/reading Harry Potter, you’ll love this book!”). Students then get a short time to read the blurb and sample the first page. We stress how important it is to choose a ‘just right’ text for them – enough challenge to allow them to practise their growing skills but not so much that every chapter is a struggle. Students then finish by writing a list of their favourite 4 books to help us put them into groups.

Grouping students

Our students are grouped according to their choice of books. It’s rare that we can give everyone their first choice as we only have 5 copies of each title and their tends to be a certain buzz around certain books each time, often dependent on the chatter from the previous round of literature circles. However we ensure all students get one of the four they chose. If students have chosen a book that will be very challenging for them, we’ll have a discussion with them about this – not to put them off but to make them aware and plan some supports for them to be successful. These might include us getting an audio copy of the book, arranging sessions to read it with someone else or a weekly conference before our literature circle meeting to check in and prepare.

Let the discussions begin

We do a lot of work during our whole class reading sessions on different comprehension strategies and model a lot of how to talk about texts and these developing skills are evident in the way students talk at the start of literature circles. We’ve never needed particular roles to get students talking and, while some students are quieter than others, all have something to say at their own level of understanding. Our roles in the groups are as facilitators and it gives us the opportunity to model the talk we want to hear and to thrown in prompting questions or wonderings to move the talk on to the next level. For example, students might be discussing what has happened in the latest chapters at a quite literal level, talking to understand and recall events. Throwing a question in about why an author included that event or why they’ve written about it from a particular perspective sometimes leads to a bit of quiet thinking time then takes the talk off in another way. We also model how to agree or disagree with someone else’s ideas and how to build on to what they said (rather than repeat it).

What about when they don’t?

Some groups find the conversations easier than others. In some, I sit back and watch as the discussion pings around, arguments and debates happen (respectfully) and themes are suggested.

Some groups seem to sit in silence for a long time, looking awkwardly at each other and waiting for us to step in. We deal with this firstly through encouraging students to be prepared – we ask them to write very brief chapter summaries before coming to the group along with post it notes about any questions they have as they read or words they don’t understand. These are often a great jumping off point for meeting discussions – what were the key parts of the chapters? What vocabulary did the author use – which bits did you like and which bits didn’t you understand? Can we work it out together? Why didn’t the author use an easier word there – why that one?

Little by little, groups gain confidence and are more readily able to talk about what they’ve read. There will always be some students who find it hard to talk in such situations – the preparation they do can help them a lot in feeling confident in speaking and feeling their contribution is valued when they do.

How do we assess it?

We use a checklist adapted from Fountas & Pinnell to track the progress of our students’ skills – in reading, asking questions, talking about themes, providing evidence, working out vocabulary but also in group skills such as including others, being prepared and managing conflict and dissent.

Collecting student chapter summaries is also a valuable source of assessment – they often start off overly detailed but manage to hone it down to the really important parts and key events or characters. Quite often, we produce written artefacts as we talk – character maps showing relationships that develop (or deteriorate), lists of traits of certain characters and evidence to show it or physical maps of locations to get our head around where the action is.

Great – where do I start!

We’ve been fortunate enough to have a few visitors over the past year come and watch literature circles in our classrooms and the question we always get is which books do we start with so that seems like the perfect place to end this blog. List of books below that we’ve used with our Grade 4-6 class:

  • Paper Planes (Steve Worland)
  • Holes (Louis Sacher)
  • The Loblolly Boy (James Norcliffe)
  • The White Tower (Cathryn Constable)
  • The One and Only Ivan (Katherine Applegate)
  • When you reach me (Rebecca Stead)
  • Somewhere around the corner (Jackie French)

Stop dumbing it down – a message to authors of children’s fiction

One of the lovely roles I have is as an occasional book reviewer for ALEA and it’s a job I love. Every now and then, I get sent some books to read and the pile is very diverse in age range, topic and genre.

Sometimes, I get some absolute gems. Picture books that are well crafted with rich language and evocative illustrations, holding you on the page. Short stories which artfully build up in a limited amount of words and often leave you wanting more. Novels with great characters (and not so noble characters) which you can identify with and walk alongside.

However I have noticed, both in this role and in my general obsession of reading young people’s literature, that the diet being served up for children is not always rich and high quality. In particular, I’ve recently read quite a few shorter novels, pitched at the grade 2-6 market which are the literary equivalent of burger and fries – quick to produce, quicker to read but with no substance. Stories without quality storylines or themes. Characters who are shallow and 2 dimensional. Even worse, Australian authors who feel the need to write as if they are American, borrowing colloquialisms and stereotypes from their culture. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that books embracing¬†American culture are bad or that I don’t enjoy them, just that I’d rather see Australian culture celebrated and reflected in books that purport to be Australian).

Most importantly, what I’m seeing is books completely bereft of the rich language of literature. For some reason, it appears that many authors feel the need to ‘dumb it down’, particularly for this age group and I don’t understand why. Picture books generally have a fantastic array of language – why, as children get older, should this disappear? I vividly remember reading all sorts of literature as a child – The Railway Children, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Heidi (read to me as a 4 year old), even Les Miserables when I was in Year 7 (thanks to my older sister studying it at University). I didn’t always understand all of the words or sentiments but that was part of the mystery, challenge and, dare I say it, fun of reading. It became a problem to solve, a secret to uncover and a world to explore. It also gave me a plethora of new words to try to fit into dinner time conversation (usually incorrectly) and surprise my parents with.

So, authors, I implore you. Don’t be tempted to turn your ability to craft rich and amazing tales into a mass produced, assembly line of fast food books. Young people need to be surrounded by quality literature which lets them explore and experience their world in all its richness and diversity, from the safety of a comfortable reading spot.