Literature Circles have proven themselves to be effective ways to help students of all ages engage and learn more deeply through reading. Since students are setting their own pace, holding each other accountable, and often exercising choice over which books to read and jobs to do, they are also growing as independent learners.
Here are five common problems, or hindrances to fully realizing the potential of literature circles in the classroom, along with effective strategies for combating those issues:
- Group Disagreements
Far and above, the most common complaint about literature circles is that the groups aren't working well together. And, of course. No matter the age, and frankly regardless of who selected the groups, disagreements will arise. This is why it is critical that good group work practices are instilled and repeated and practiced many times before students are released to work independently in groups (if you want them to go well).
In a previous post, I even referenced some wisdom that suggests waiting until second semester if your students are new to working effectively in groups. This gives you time to really practice the skills needed to negotiate, communicate, and work together.
Here are some good, research-based resources on building good groups:
- Poor Quality Work
Be expressly clear about your expectations early on. Practice each of the jobs together, and then hang up examples of "A" work. Grammar and Spelling? Clear understanding of the text? Used higher-order thinking skills? Etc. Make sure that students understand exactly what high-quality work looks like for this specific project. Also, make sure that the consequences for not doing the work are clear, and consistent.
I've heard of requiring students to do all five jobs if they don't complete the one assigned for them. That may be harsh, but you know your students and you know their capabilities. What do you expect from that student in particular? Make sure they know, and make sure there are clearly posted rubrics for EACH job.
Spend a good amount of time during the first few days of groupwork (and then circle back after that for brief check-ins) with each student, guiding their process until you are confident in their results. Can you bring in an aide or parent volunteer for an hour or two? Even a 5-minute conference with each student and the rubric would help guide them.
- Work not Turned in on Time
Even though literature circles allow students to work together and have class time to work on their job, there will be some students who may not finish their work.
Decide, per each student, what is necessary. For most, your typical consequence in this case may need to be upped a bit. But, you also want to make sure that students with differing needs and levels of ability are accounted for. This kind of homework is perfect for being adjusted and leveled properly. After spending time with each student to make sure that their work is at the appropriate level, consider what will work best in your classroom to encourage the group completing work on time.
I would frequently give individual grades and group grades for group work. This way, individuals would be held accountable if they did not complete their part of the project, but the whole group would recieve credit for reading and working together in class.
- Difficulty Comprehending the Reading
Although you certainly will do your best with assigning books that are appropriately challenging for the students, there will be times in which you may notice that they are not diving deeply enough into the text. Or, you may notice that they are not comprehending the text at all, or missing key elements.
Make sure to provide students with the training and the key words necessary to perform the necessary functions of questioning, inferring, determining importance, decoding, visualizing, and the like.
These strategies, while surely practiced elsewhere in your classroom, should also be posted and given out in reminders throughout your instruction, and as you circle the room to help with group work.
Additionally, if students are truly struggling with the text, consider providing audio, support services through the resource room, peer tutoring, cliff notes, or even switching them to a simpler text.
Maybe your students aren't ready for the expectations of a traditional literature circle. Perhaps they are younger, ineperienced in cooperative circles, or struggling in ways that make it challenging. Don't be afraid to adjust the expectations, the pace, the jobs, or the project itself to suit what your students truly need.
I often taught students how to be in literature circles by alternating weeks where we would work together as a whole-class, or individually, with weeks where they were expected to work together. This allowed me time to really monitor their understanding as well as guage whether or not things needed to be adjusted.
Remember, you aren't teaching literature circles, you're teaching students! :)
What is your favorite modification for literature circles in your classroom?