Effective Book Clubs: The Teacher’s Role and Assessment

This is the third installment in a series of posts with ideas and suggestions for running effective literacy circles or book clubs with students from second grade through high school. You can read the others in this series here.

As stated earlier in previous posts, thriving book clubs are rarely teacher directed. So if that is true, what is the teacher’s role during this time? I believe the most important task is to listen and make teaching decisions. We need to sit beside each group, intervening as little as possible, and simply observe and listen. Questions we might consider as we observe are:

  • Are the students talking?
  • Are students referring to the text when they talk?
  • Is there equal air time? Are all members talking, or are some hogging the air space? Are there some students who never contribute?
  • Are groups talking long about issues, or does one share his thoughts, the next child share her own ideas, and so on—until each student has had a turn without responding to one another? Are students simply reporting their ideas to each other, or is there a true discussion taking place? After one student shares, do the others connect and build upon that student’s ideas before moving on to a new aspect of the text?
  • On what are students focusing their discussions?
    • Are they simply giving basic summaries of what has been read?
    • Are they discussing story elements: character, setting, and plot?
    • Are they sharing personal reactions to what has been read?
    • Do they notice and comment on aspects of the writer’s craft?
    • What else are they noticing and talking about?

In The Reading Strategies Book (326, 2015, Heinemann), Jennifer Serravallo describes two wonderful systems for note taking while observing groups. In her first suggestion, she draws a circle on the left side of a paper and writes the names of the students in the group around the circle. Each time a student talks, she puts a tally by his/her name. This way, she can look back and see if the voice time is being shared. She will also have a record of who is never talking and who might be sharing too often. On the other side, she transposes snippets of what the children are saying; this can be analyzed later to see what students are focusing on in their conversations in order to plan next steps.

The other method she uses helps her determine if students need help with comprehension strategies, conversational skills, or both. Serravallo draws a two-column note sheet with Comprehension Strategies as the heading on one side and Conversational Skills on the other. As students share, she notes the big ideas they are discussing. For instance, if students in one group talk long about characters, she might challenge them to share about setting the next time. Or if students are simply sharing what happened in the story, she might teach a mini-lesson on inferencing or on making personal connections to the reading.

These notes can direct the teacher in choosing an appropriate mini-lesson. (A list of mini-lesson choices will be shared in the next installment of this blog series.) From whatever seems to be lacking in the group’s conversations, a topic can be chosen and a short mini-lesson formulated around that topic. Following the mini-lesson, the students should read with that topic in mind, knowing what they will be expected to share when their group meets after independent reading time is over.

For instance, several groups might have been weak on equal voice time according to the note-taking sheet. The next day, the teacher might teach a lesson on the importance of equal voice time. When this issue arises I like to tell the students that our brain grows in certain ways when we listen and in other ways when we talk, so we need to be conscious to do both. With this in mind, I challenge the quiet students to share more often and the verbal ones to focus on listening and on not talking so much. I tell the students that today when they read, they should think of what they will share with their partners, or how they will listen well. I remind them of this challenge again when discussion time begins.

If my lesson is on writer’s craft, I might share a novel I am reading in which the author uses great sensory images, or uses many one-word sentences to create an effect, or purposely uses run-on sentences, and so on. Then I challenge the students, during their reading on that day, to notice what their author’s style is. When it is time for groups to meet, I remind them to try to discuss this first in their group. Then they can open it up to freely discuss topics of their choice.

If my observation sheets show that students are having grand conversations about their books, I might not teach any mini-lessons at all. As said earlier, the best literacy circles have the least amount of teacher intervention. With that said, some mini lessons are appropriate for certain groups but not others.

Assessment and Evaluation

At the end of the book, we need to assess students in a way that not only evaluates the work they did during the book club, but in ways that guide our students to set next steps and goals. A rubric similar to the one below might be helpful.

As with any type of evaluation, it is important that students understand the expectations up front; therefore, it is useful to give all students the rubric prior to embarking on book clubs. I explain the rubric on the launching day of the clubs, modeling what it would look and sound like to earn a score of 5 in all categories. It might also be useful to score students in the middle of the novel as well as at the end. If a child gets a low score on an item, the mid-book score would give him or her a chance to set a goal and try to improve.

Stevi Quate and John McDermott (Heinemann, 2009) emphasize the power of having students score themselves as well as the others in any group work, using their book Clock Watchers. In this case, the above rubric would be filled out by each member of the group for every other member. If we expect students to rate their peers as honestly as possible, it is important that students feel secure that these scores will NEVER be shared. Students would also give themselves a score. Last, the teacher would give a score to each student. Scores from these three factions—self, peers, and teacher—could be averaged for a final book grade

Another item that could be assessed is one or two written artifacts and possibly the students’ sticky notes, journals, or another method in which they collect their thoughts for daily discussions. Many ideas for written activities will be shared in the next blog in this series. (You can read the whole series here.)