Effective Literacy Circles and Book Clubs

This is the first installment in a series of seven posts with ideas and suggestions for running effective literacy circles or book clubs with students from second grade through high school.

“Book clubs and partnerships play a crucial role in supporting student comprehension and also in making the reading process a social one (Nichols, 2006). When kids talk well about books, the conversations can be invigorating, engaging, and enlightening. When they don’t go well, kids get bored and off task and time is wasted. What most kids often need is instruction in how to talk well, period, and also how to talk well about books.”

—Jennifer Serravallo, The Reading Strategies Book: Your Everything Guide to Developing Skilled Readers (324, Heinemann, 2015).

In the chapter “Must Everyone Read the Same Book?” from Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading (Beers and Probst, 2013), the authors state that there are three main ways in which teachers teach books to students in our country: teaching or reading the same book to, with, or by the entire class; independent reading of self-selected books; or small groups of students reading and discussing the same novel as seen in book clubs or literacy circles. Each method is beneficial in its own way. Reading the same book to all students supports children, adolescents, and teens in learning to discuss as a large group. This gives the class a common experience in which they can become a true community of learners.

The benefits of independent reading include an increase in the number of novels read by each student per year, the honoring of individual choice, the ability for students to proceed at their own pace and read books at their just-right level, and the probability that students will fall in love with reading and become lifelong readers. Comparatively, the benefits found in small groups of students reading the same novel are that students can read a quality piece of literature while learning to discuss and comprehend in a small-group setting.

While I believe that the majority of instructional time should be spent teaching comprehension strategies by reading aloud to the entire class on a regular basis and supplementing that learning with students’ independent reading of self-selected texts, I also assert that there are many benefits to be had from incorporating book clubs three to six times throughout the school year. These clubs can teach students to discuss and learn in other unique and valuable ways.

There is no right way to run book clubs, and methods are always evolving. Harvey Daniels wrote about a system to use when you are new to this type of instruction in his book Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in the Student-Centered Classroom (Heinemann, 2002). In his system, each student has a different role or job to attend to as the group reads. These roles are discussion director, passage picker/literary luminary, artful artist/illustrator, word finder/word wizard, connector, and summarizer. Each role is explained in precise detail within his text.

In a more recent book which Daniels co-authored with Stephanie Harvey, Comprehension & Collaboration: Inquiry Circles in Action (Heinemann, 2009), the roles listed above are de-emphasized. In fact, the authors seem to suggest that these roles might limit great discussions rather than encourage them. He would prefer that students hold their thinking on post-its, text annotations, bookmarks, and in journals. When no specific role is assigned to the students, they are able to meet in a very simple format to share their thinking. In his new book, Daniels suggests that a literacy circle be guided by three simple standards:

  1. Students choose a book to read.
  2. Students divide the book into three to four reading sections.
  3. Students meet every few days to discuss their reading.

In trying this simple method with my middle school students, I found that something was missing. Students completed the reading and held discussions, but many of their discussions were perfunctory and dry. Students were mostly summing up what happened in the story and not having the grand conversations I dreamed of. Or worse yet, teachers were leading these groups with pre-selected questions, and students were providing correct answers without a true discussion ever taking place. This led me to do some serious research into the best practices in which to guide effective book clubs/literacy circles.

Sections in this series will include:

  • Prerequisites for Effective Book Clubs and Launching the Club
  • The Teacher’s Role and Assessment
  • Mini-lessons that Support Effective Literacy Circles/Book Clubs
  • Daily Reflections and Written Responses
  • Great Titles for Book Clubs
  • Using Book Clubs with Making Meaning and Conclusion

Please watch for the next blog in this series.