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Using Literature Circles in Middle School ELA: A Complete Guide

    using literature circles in middle school ela

    Thinking of using literature circles in middle school ELA? Learn why they’re an effective approach to reading. I’ll also share my step-by-step approach to planning your next literature circle unit.

    Are you ready to shake up the approach to reading in your ELA classroom? When done well, literature circles are an effective ELA activity for any grade or reading level. Not only will I share my effective step-by-step approach to using literature circles in the classroom, but I’ll answer all the major questions and provide some extra tips too!

    Whether this is your first time tackling literature circles or you’re looking for a more effective approach, I wrote this guide with you in mind.

    What is a Literature Circle in Middle School?

    A literature circle refers to a small group of students coming together to read and discuss a text. While the students in each group read the same text, each group reads a different text. While each student is expected to complete independent tasks between their scheduled meetings, literature circles in general are highly cooperative.

    “What’s the difference between literature circles and guided reading,” you ask? Guided reading involves more teacher-led scaffolding and support. Teachers guide students through the reading, comprehension, and analysis of a text. Literature circles, however, are more student-focused and independent. Rather than working directly with the teacher, students work closely with one another to read, discuss, and analyze a novel. Meanwhile, the teacher observes as the students work together throughout the experience.

    What are the Key Features of Literature Circles?

    The best part about literature circles is that they allow for flexibility. You can make them whatever they need to be to meet the needs of your students and curriculum. However, there are some vital features successful literature circles have in common.

    A successful literature circle should include:

    • An element of student choice in reading material
    • Small groups of students reading the same book
    • Different groups reading different texts
    • Student groups meeting on a regular basis
    • Students having roles or tasks to complete before each meeting
    • Students generating discussion topics
    • Groups having organic discussions at meetings
    • Analyzing text as a cooperative experience
    • The teacher acting as a facilitator and observer

    These elements are essential to your students experiencing a hands-on and engaging reading experience with several benefits.

    What are the Benefits of Literature Circles in Middle School?

    There are several benefits of using literature circles in middle school that go beyond reading skills, including promoting independence, cooperation, and classroom culture. However, literature circles do set the stage for a powerful and engaging reading experience for students of varying ages, interests, and abilities.

    Here are some of the benefits of literature circles that I know you’ll appreciate:

    • Reignite student interest in reading. Since students have a say in what they are going to read for literature circles, they have more of a chance of reading something they are interested in. This mix of choice and interest can promote engagement, intrinsic motivation, and overall enjoyment of reading.
    • Support differentiation in new ways. While the goal is to break students up by interest, you should consider their ability as well. Some teachers prefer to provide more structure and support to groups of struggling readers. Others promote students to support each other by ensuring well-balanced heterogeneous groups.
    • Provide variety and flexibility. How many times are students told what, when, and how to read? How often do you approach novels as a teacher-led novel study? Literature circles offer a new approach and help keep learning interesting for students while giving you the flexibility to incorporate your curriculum standards or competencies.
    • Promote ownership over learning. The role of the teacher during literature circles is to be a facilitator and observer, not an instructor. While that can feel a bit scary at first, it can lead to incredible outcomes. Literature circles are a reminder for us as teachers and our students just how much they are capable of.
    • Create an authentic experience. Since literature circles embrace student-led learning, there is a lot of room for authentic learning experiences. Student discussions are organic as they bring their interpretations, experiences, and connections to their group meetings.
    • Foster classroom culture. Students must rely on collaboration to analyze the text. This element of working together contributes to a growing sense of a positive classroom culture. A positive classroom culture helps build a sense of classroom community and increases student motivation, participation, engagement, and learning.

    How Do You Conduct Literature Circles in Middle School?

    Okay, so I’ve convinced you that literature circles are a good idea. (Yay!) However, now you might be wondering, “What makes a good literature circle?” Or, “How can I set students up for success?”

    Follow my step-by-step approach below to make planning your next (or first) literature circle a streamlined and successful experience for all involved. 

    1. Determine The Learning Goal.

    You must determine the learning goal of your literature circle unit before you do anything else. This learning goal will help guide the rest of the decisions you make, including which novels you choose and what mini-lessons you teach between meetings. The learning goal will also play an essential role in the expectations you have for your students and how you will assess student success.

    There’s no one specific goal teachers should have when doing literature circles. Instead, the beauty of literature circles is the ability to adapt them for various purposes. Determine what you want students to get out of the literature circle, including learning goals, and plan the rest from there.

    2. Choose Your Book Titles

    Unlike independent reading, literature circles involve teacher choice over the reading material—to a point. Therefore, the next step to planning a successful literature circle unit is picking a set of titles students will choose from. Just make sure your choices connect back to your overall learning goal.

    Additionally, the novels should connect to each other in some way. If your students just learned about the hero’s journey, characterization, or plot structure, for example, you’d want to choose titles that put that element on clear display. You can connect book choices by author, topic, theme, time period, genre, etc. This will help you plan full-class learning experiences between literature circle meetings.

    Wait—Can I Only Choose Book Titles I’ve Read?

    I’m not going to lie—it’s helpful if you’ve read the books your students will be discussing. However, it’s not going to ruin the experience if you haven’t. At the very least, make sure you’re familiar with each book. Understand the basics, like plot, main characters, and themes, so you can engage in meaningful discussions with students.

    3. Share the Titles with Your Students

    Once you’ve selected your titles, determine how you are going to share them with your students. Before students can determine their top choices from the selected titles, give them a bit of information about each text. Encourage students to keep track of their initial thoughts on each title to help them when it comes time to choose their favorites. A simple graphic organizer or note tracker can get the job done.

    With that said, don’t stop at giving a synopsis or reading the back cover. I highly recommend you let students actually look into the book as well. Encourage them to flip through the pages, paying attention to everything from the book or chapter lengths to font sizes and language used. Together, this will help them decide which novels are best for them in terms of interest and ability.

    Here are a few fun ways to introduce students to your literature circle lineup:

    • Hold a book talk
    • Go on a gallery walk
    • Show book trailers
    • Host a book tasting
    • Set up book speed dating

    It’s never too late to start introducing book titles if you know you are planning to use literature circles in your classroom. Consider incorporating Friday Chapter Fridays into your weekly lesson plan to dip students’ toes into potential literature circle choices.

    4. Give Your Students a Choice

    Student choice over reading material is an imperative aspect of literature circles. Have students review their notes and reactions. From there, give students an opportunity to write down their top choices. I recommend asking for their top three choices to give you a little wiggle room when creating the reading groups. Just make sure to remind students they may not get assigned their number one choice.

    I also recommend having students briefly explain why they are interested in each title. They don’t need to write a long-winded explanation. A single sentence or two will suffice. It’s useful to know why students are interested in a certain book and take that into consideration when forming the final groups. Some students are interested in a particular topic or theme, while others note a personal connection to a character or conflict.

    Teacher tip: Avoid having students talk too much about their choices to prevent bias. While the idea of being in the same group as all their friends might sound appealing to students, it isn’t always a recipe for success.

    5. Form Student Groups

    Once you have student choices in hand, it’s time to start forming reading groups. In my experience, groups of three to five students work best, but that doesn’t mean each group has to have the same number of students. Additionally, the best literature circles tend to occur when students are reading books they want to read. But, of course, use your best judgment. For example, I recommend avoiding assigning a student to a group if you know the text will be way too difficult for them—even if it’s their top choice.

    Ask yourself the following questions as you make your groups:

    • Why is the student interested in this book? Knowing why students want to read a certain book can help you make an informed decision.
    • Can these students cooperate? It’s important that students feel comfortable among group members.
    • Are you setting the students up for success? It’s okay if a book is a little challenging, but you don’t want the student to be overwhelmed.

    Ultimately, how you decide to group students in one class can differ from how you group students in another class.But that’s the beauty of literature circles, isn’t it?

    6. Set the Schedule

    Now that your groups are formed, it’s time to set some schedules. For literature circles to be successful, students should be meeting to discuss their books on a regular basis. While there’s no magic number, students should be meeting at least once a week. If your school operates under block scheduling, you might consider longer meetings once a week. If your students meet every day, you can incorporate two shorter meetings a week. Just be sure students have ample time between meetings to accomplish their reading and associated tasks.

    Once the meeting schedule is determined, each group can divide their text to determine where everyone should read to for each meeting. Remind them that they should never stop in the middle of a chapter unless there is a clear break in the text. Then, have each student fill out a reading calendar so they can keep track of their group’s goals. I recommend approving each group’s calendar to ensure students are setting themselves up for success.

    7. Set the Meeting Expectations

    Now that the schedules are set, it’s time to review some expectations for each meeting. Of course, the goal of these meetings is for students to engage in student-led discussions. However, you will need to provide some structure to ensure success. There are a few ways to go about setting these expectations:

    • Roles: Many teachers, especially for elementary and middle-grader learners, assign student roles for each meeting. These roles and responsibilities then rotate for each meeting. This approach can be very successful as it provides students with well-defined roles and expectations while still giving them ample room for student-led learning. Popular roles include:
      • The Summarizer, The Discussion Leader, The Text Connector, The Passage Selector, The Vocabulary Enricher, The Inference Detective, The Character Critic,  TheLiterary Luminary, and The Symbolism Seeker.
    • No Roles: If you want to give students more freedom or inspire more organic discussions, you might want a different approach. Instead, you might ask each student to bring 2-3 talking points and an important quote to each literature circle meeting. I recommend providing students with a list of higher-order question stems to promote critical thinking and engaging discussions. I recommend using this approach with more advanced students.

    8. Incorporate Mini-Lessons

    Since students won’t be working in their literature groups every minute of every class period, you might be wondering how to fill the gaps. There are various mini-lessons you can incorporate during a literature circle unit. These lessons serve as a springboard for discussion during the next literature circle meetings.

    When planning mini-lessons, return to your purpose and learning goals for this unit. What do you hope your students will learn? What concepts do you want them to apply as they read? What textual elements would be useful to discuss with their group? Let these questions guide you as you plan lessons in-between student group meetings. You can even use your observations during literature circle meetings to inform your planning of mini-lessons as you go. For example, are there any concepts they are struggling to comprehend? Review it with an upcoming mini-lesson!

    Here are some of my favorite mini-lessons to teach during a literature circle unit:

    … just to name a few!

    Ready to Give Literature Circles a Try in Your Classroom?

    It may take some strategy and planning at first, but once you start using literature circles in your classroom it will quickly pay off. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, making small tweaks along the way. Just remember, the beauty of literature circles is the ability to make them whatever they need to be in that moment for those students.

    So don’t be afraid to play around with your planning and try new things. The goal is to get students working together and engaging closely with a high-interest text. And, who knows? You might just reignite their love for reading along the way—and wouldn’t that be something!

    If you have any additional tips to share about literature circles, share them in a comment below! The more the merrier.

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