Literature Circles in Middle School

Instructor: David Raudenbush
Middle schoolers are at the perfect age to collaborate in literature circles. They are also at a challenging age for effective group work because many middle schoolers struggle with structure. Read on to learn more about implementing literature circles in the middle school classroom.

Middle School Challenges

Middle school is an ideal time to introduce literature circles to students. Literature circles are a form of small group instruction in which students take the initiative to lead discussions about something they have read. Middle schoolers are entering an age of heightened social awareness so they often prefer activities that allow them to talk to each other rather than listening passively to a teacher or doing quiet, independent work.

Literature circles make reading social.
Student reading

However, there are also pitfalls to middle school literature circles that teachers need to be aware of. Middle schoolers may be socially primed for small group learning activities. However, they are also often impulsive and lack discretion. They need highly structured activities like literature circles, but it can be tricky to get them to conform to a strict set of procedures.

The key to success with middle school literature circles is to teach students how to work within the structure. Students need to understand the value in the discussions they hold. They need to see the value in reading with a small group of fellow students. Students will learn that through lessons dedicated to that purpose and from the experience of working together.

Launching Literature Circles

Literature circles resemble book clubs adapted for classroom use. Small groups, usually four or five students, sit together to read and discuss the same material, whether it be a book, short story, poem or play. Often, they read aloud together in the group and share ideas as they read.

When launching literature circles, the teacher may want the entire class to read the same material. This strategy gives the teacher time to indoctrinate the class in the literature circle format. Later on, groups can choose what they want to read. The teacher needs to provide numerous lessons on how to talk and share ideas in the group setting. Students need to learn how to provide and respond to feedback from each other. That is important because students at the middle school level may not have developed all the necessary social skills for successful collaboration.

One useful technique the teacher may employ is called a fishbowl. The teacher identifies a group of students who collaborate well. Students arrange all the desks in the room into a circle around a small cluster of desks for one group. The successful students sit in the middle and conduct their literature circle discussion, while the other students watch, take notes and learn how to work cooperatively.

Establishing Group Roles

Literature circle activities require students to perform prescribed roles in their groups. This ensures that all students participate in the group discussions. When students fill the roles properly, the conversations lead to deeper comprehension. The assigned roles create the structure middle schoolers need to make literature circles effective. These are the roles most often used:

  • Discussion leader: develops questions and topics for the group to discuss after they read.
  • Summarizer: writes a summary of key points in the reading assignment including plot and characterization.
  • Vocabulary finder: pays attention to word choice in the text, creates a list of new words for the group members to add to their vocabulary and asks the group questions about the author's choice of language.
  • Connector: looks for connections between events in the text and real life, other books or movies and television.
  • Artist: depicts important scenes from the text.

Teaching Reading with Literature Circles

Literature circles complement effective reading instruction. The teacher still needs to provide frequent mini-lessons that focus on reading comprehension strategies and literary devices. A mini-lesson is a short, focused form of direct instruction that prepares students to read. The teacher reads aloud, modeling the use of a comprehension strategy, such as making inferences, or identifying a particular literary element, like characterization. Next, the teacher leads guided practice with the whole class using a shared text. When the teacher believes students are ready, they apply the lesson in their literature circles. In a typical week, literature circles meet at least three times. Mini-lessons should occur before almost every literature circle lesson, and sometimes afterward if the teacher feels the need.

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