Literature Circles & Common Core

Instructor: David Raudenbush
The Common Core State Standards challenge teachers to raise the level of reading comprehension work in the classroom. Literature circles can teacher students to read and think as the standards demand.

Circling the Common Core

If you are an English language arts teacher, you may have scratched your head a few times wondering what you can do to meet the challenges of the Common Core State Standards for reading. One instructional strategy you can try is literature circles.

Literature circles are highly-structured, small group discussions about a reading selection. Almost any type of literature will do: fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, novels or short stories. If you have a group of four or five students reading the same thing, they can form a literature circle. In the circle, every student has a job to perform in the group conversation. Those jobs can elevate thinking about reading to the level the Common Core demands.

The common core challenges students to read at higher levels.
Student reading

Meeting the Standards

The purpose of the Common Core Standards is to make sure that students leave K-12 schools college- and career-ready. Literature circles can help do that. Because they are student-led discussions, they foster independent thinking, which is certainly necessary for high education and the job market.

Common Core also places value on students interpreting and analyzing complex texts written on a high reading level. In other words, students should be reading more Shakespeare and less Harry Potter. Literature circles can make comprehending difficult material more realistic for every student because the reading occurs collaboratively. Five brains can (often) dissect a sonnet more effectively than one.

Close Reading

One of the principles of Common Core is close reading, a thoughtful analysis of what the text says. One of the anchor standards says, 'Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.'

Literature circles set up perfectly for close reading. In a literature circle, every student has a role to play. A discussion leader, who decides what the group talks about, finds questions or topics in the text for group discussion. Another student, the summarizer, constructs a summary of the day's reading. There's a student, the vocabulary builder, whose job is to focus on the author's word choice. Putting all that together adds up to a close reading.

Another anchor standard says, 'Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.' Central ideas and themes should be the focus of literature circle discussions throughout the activity. The discussion leader should be generating those topics, and the summarizer should be recording those details. This approach will also help students meet the standard that says, 'Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.'

The core standards can set the agenda for the literature circles. The teacher simply needs to provide frequent mini-lessons that will teach students how to think and talk about the standards. Much of that can be done by reading aloud from a text and modeling how to make text-based inferences, interpret dialogue, and look for central ideas or themes.

Thinking About Words

The writers of the Common Core Standards wanted students to think about the author's word choice, or use of specific language. An anchor standard reads, 'Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.' Literature circles suit that function. Every group's vocabulary builder's job is to focus on the author's word choice. That individual leads the discussion about why the author chose certain language and keeps a list of important vocabulary.

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