For too many children, books are a chore, a thing to do. Books are just thrust upon them.
Books are for “holding children accountable” for reading by answering A, B, C or true/false, or even worse, Close Reading. Children analyze text in such a robotic, formulaic way that any joy in figuring out the puzzle of a good story, guessing what will happen next, or comparing characters to your life- it’s all gone.
Then there are literary circles.
In groups, students enjoy reading and reflecting on self-selected text with friends. The goal is to give students the power to choose to read, then share or even lead others towards deeper connections with the text.
There are an infinite number of ways to do literary circles, which are essentially book clubs. Note that any form of independent reading may be too challenging for students with limited reading and speaking fluency.
Here is my basic approach, but modify anything to suit your class’s needs.
- What books do they read?
Students self-select and read books they love: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Goosebumps, absolutely any book or comic book that children can all agree on. One student typically leads with a book suggestion (often jumping up and down coaxing friends to join them) but all children are free to join in or not.
2. How are children grouped?
Students must read and discuss with at least one other human child, though the most successful groups have three, four, or more children who feed off each other’s enthusiasm. Connecting with another human being is so stimulating and engaging. Some groups get big, some stay small. Every group’s dynamic will be different, so be prepared to split groups up if there are too many big personalities or other conflicts. I give individual children the option to later on decide to leave one group and join another, but only if they take their new group’s book home and read to catch up. (See what I did there? Extended Free Voluntary Reading!)
3. What do children do during discussion time?
After reading, students illustrate something that struck them from the text in a sketchbook. Any kind, age-appropriate response or connection to their lives is okay, as long as children are truly reflecting on the text. It’s amazing how just five minutes of drawing to respond to reading has a soothing, Pavlovian effect. Children connect reading with relaxing, luring in reluctant readers. Then, when children are ready to speak, having a visual makes it easier to spark a discussion.
There is no required speaking or forced writing, and no agenda or teacher-created questions to “cover.” Most kids are dying to talk about their book, but they can just listen in their group if they prefer. Circulate around to monitor groups, but let children lead. Oversight is sometimes needed to make sure children are on task and speech is constructive and kind. As with all group work, you need to go over group norms and how to be a good listener. Here is a contract that I use to start the groups.
4. How much time should I plan for literary circles?
The time your children can focus on one book will vary greatly depending on age and reading ability, likely somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour. I have found with most grades, kids need 10 minutes for sketchbooks and discussion. If it gets quiet, they just sketch until someone pipes up because they want to, not because they are forced to. I recommend letting kids decide on an exact schedule. Anything to make them feel autonomous. The goal is to develop self-directed readers and peers who can be good reading role models.
If the conversation gets slow, that group may not have “mature” readers yet. They may need more good reading experiences to develop an enthusiasm for books, so they may need to have more silent reading time and less discussion time. Or else, they may need to pick a new, more engaging book and start over.
There are countless ways to adapt literary circles for different ages and abilities. Just make sure children feel like books make them a part of something-a “club” where they are heard and accepted.