In my first few years of teaching, I was constantly looking for ways to improve my literature circle unit. I wanted roles that were differentiated, but also stimulating for my students. I wanted to instill responsibilities that would mirror the reading strategies I was developing in my readers. I wanted my students to take initiative, and to hold each other accountable. So I did my research, and I wound up with the method that I still use today.
But before sharing this method, let’s explore a few commonly asked questions about literature circles to gain a better understanding of peer-based learning.
FAQ For Facilitating Literature Circles
Q: Do I need to pick books that I’ve read?
A: Although it might seem intuitive to read a text in order to assess students on their comprehension, the answer is no. Since students will be learning from one another, it will not be your responsibility to guide them through the plot.
Q: How will I participate in their learning or assess them if I haven’t read the books?
A: The goal of peer-based learning is to have students build shared understandings of the text. For evaluation purposes, it is helpful to become clear about what you want to evaluate students on: if your curriculum is promoting higher-level thinking, then the goal should not be for students to simply retell the story – this means you will not need to know the plot to participate in their learning.
You can assess students with one-pagers, overarching discussion questions, and summative assessments that require a strong understanding of the text. When evaluating students, focus on their critical thinking and text connections. Here are some great resources that push students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the text:
Lower School (Grades 4-6): Draw from a number of student reflection and assessment one-pagers in the Literature Circles Unit from Brain Ninjas.
Middle School (Grades 6-8): Prompt students to write a paragraph in which they reflect on their reading using the “Retell, Relate, Reflect, Review Book Report” resource from 2 Peas and a Dog.
High School (Grades 9-12): Have students focus on the theme and characterization within the novel by creating a movie trailer. Mondays Made Easy offers a Movie Trailer Assessment for Any Novel that includes instructions, rubrics, and student examples.
Q: Do the students really need roles?
A: After some research, I’ve concluded that there is no right answer to this question. The benefits to roles are that they offer structure, promote responsibility (which may improve attendance), and practice utilizing different reading strategies. The disadvantage to roles is that they may stifle conversation and creativity; a study from the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy reported that “cooperative learning roles assigned to students often stilted conversations, resulting in students reading responses from their role sheets. In these instances, students do not react to each other or question each other; instead, they simply give each other their answers.” If you are finding that your students are stifled by roles, the alternative would be to teach them how to lead and document their own discussions. To do this, you can use Mondays Made Easy’s Group Discussion Outline and have students rotate through the role of keeping track of the conversation, or record their conversation to listen back to it. Note that you might need to model this process for students to be successful with it.
Q: My students are all at different levels. Should I still use literature circles?
A: Yes. Research conducted by the National Council for Teachers of English and the International Reading Association concluded that literature circles are a great strategy for neurodivergent students, struggling readers, and accelerated learners alike.
Q: Can students perform the same roles every week?
A: This depends on your students and the roles they wish to continually assume. Some roles are especially suitable for particular students and it may be a good opportunity for them to utilize their strengths – this is especially true if you are creating groups of students with diverse learning profiles. In my classroom, I make them switch their roles each week. Even though they might not particularly love a role, it is beneficial for them to step outside of their comfort zone. It also avoids the predictability of completing the same tasks for each reading assignment.
Q: Is peer-based learning rigorous enough to ensure my students are really learning?
A: All research points to “yes.” A study featured in the Curriculum
and Teaching Dialogue Journal found that “literature circles increased motivation, influenced positive social and communicative skills, and allowed students to gain vital understandings.” A separate study featured in Research in the Teaching of English concluded that “students engaged in literature circles demonstrated increased comprehension, higher-level thinking, and an ability to engage more deeply with text.”
If it is important for you to know that your students are being held accountable, you can drop in on meetings at random to evaluate students. I use the individual rubric provided in Mondays Made Easy’s Complete Guide to Literature Circles.
Q: How do you evaluate literature circles? Do you provide an individual or group mark?
A: I will assign a group mark for group assignments, along with the completion and submission of their book club material. From here, I’ll adjust the grade based on my own individual evaluations, as well as peer feedback from my students using a peer evaluation form (which can also be found in Mondays Made Easy’s Complete Guide) – for example, if a student has demonstrated that they’ve done an excellent job each week, I’ll be sure to boost their grade.
The Ultimate Guide to Literature Circles
Creating Groups for Literature Circles
While some teachers like to group students based on book choice, I’ve found it to be effective to group them based on personality and level. I use Mondays Made Easy’s Personality Quiz and Inventory to balance personality traits within each group, and will also take learning profiles into consideration – for example, it has been helpful to group my English Language Learners together or create learning mentorship partners within groups. If I am exploring a particular genre within literature, I’ll create a list of my own texts and invite students to add titles if they wish. Then each group can select their top three options. I’ll try to work with these choices to assign a novel they are interested in – this usually works quite well!
Distribute Reading Assignments and Roles
Once students have been grouped and assigned their novels, it’s time to establish reading assignments and meeting dates. I usually find between 8-10 meetings to be a good amount; if you’d like to stretch your unit out, try breaking up meetings with class-wide activities, one-pagers, or discussions.
I then use the graphic organizer from Mondays Made Easy’s Complete Guide to Literature Circles to organize reading assignments. I usually instruct students to divide the page number of their novel by the number of meetings and use that as a guideline to establish how many chapters will be covered in each reading assignment. Make sure to clarify whether the chapters of the assignment are inclusive of the last chapter or not. If not, you’ll be bound to have some confusion, so avoid this rookie mistake.
Students can then distribute roles for each week using the graphic organizer (the roles can be found in Mondays Made Easy’s Complete Guide). Let every student fill out the graphic organizer so every student knows their role for each meeting. Better yet – complete this task digitally so that students can have a copy on their personal drive.
Regrouping and Consolidating
Sometimes I’ll deliver a mini-lesson before book club meetings, but typically I’ll let students get straight into literature circles. I’ll usually have groups nominate a student representative to share with the class at the end of the meeting. You can also ask overarching questions featured in Mondays Made Easy’s Complete Guide.
Assessment and Facilitation
I like to drop in on meetings at random and use the rubric in the Complete Guide to evaluate students individually. These random assessments can create more incentive for students to be prepared for each meeting, and also provide individual feedback and assessment to students.
But one of the best assets of peer-based learning is that it is ultimately the students that keep each other accountable. To instill this accountability, I use my peer evaluation form and take student feedback into consideration when calculating each student’s final mark. When creating your own peer evaluation form, be sure to include constructive language that focuses on the student’s work, rather than the student themselves. Remind students to be supportive of one another, and to offer an explanation for their feedback whenever possible. (You can find my peer rubric here).
For a final assessment, I assign Mondays Made Easy’s Movie Trailer Assessment for Any Novel. I find this to be a successful assessment because it prompts students to consider important elements of the novel (theme, characterization, etc.) while encouraging them to avoid dry summaries. Viewing these trailers at the end of the unit also sparks extracurricular reading for students who are inspired by their classmates’ work.
When Literature Circle Roles Become Boring
If you want to scrap Literature Circle roles, you can still ensure that students have successful conversations using a Discussion Tracker Outline. I’ll be walking through how I do this in my next blog post – stay tuned!