PETAA PAPER 197

Studnets seated in a circle on the floor with question cards and the book Nanberry: Black Brother White

Figure 1: Students working in a literature circle group

Responding to literature: Talking about books in Literature Circles

Alyson Simpson

The concept of Literature Circles/Book Discussions is quite old but, due to the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: English (ACE) with its emphasis on literature, Literature Circles (LC) are repositioned to be a strong support for teachers looking to find a way to embed informed appreciation of literary texts in their English programs. As the ACE provides an overview of mandated and recommended content but not pedagogy, teachers are left to make their own decisions on how to teach English. This PETAA paper discusses the power of Literature Circles as a pedagogic strategy that helps teachers refresh their ideas about helping children to read.

What are Literature Circles?

Literature Circles are in essence student-directed conversations about literary texts. Ideally LC are run as small temporary discussion groups of students, who elect to read the same text and then gather to share their ideas through sustained dialogue (see Figure 1). They reflect a child-centred model of learning built on a platform of explicit modelling and encourage an extensive and intensive reading program where there is higher engagement with texts as students bring their own ideas and understandings. Each member is given specific responsibilities by adopting a LC role.

Before the LC discussion each student individually prepares supporting notes, discussion prompts or creative responses to use when they meet with their group guided by the role they have taken on.

The circles meet regularly and the roles rotate amongst the group members. The goal is that high quality, student constructed materials will invite all the group members to think deeply about the literary text, engage in meaningful conversation, and share multiple perspectives and unique points of view.

Alyson Simpson

Alyson Simpson

Poorly run LC become a monologic presentation forum where each person takes turns to tell the other group members what they have found out through their close reading of the book and there is no interaction between group members. Both students and teachers raised this negative view of LC — both viewing it as equally problematic but in different words. Yet, even in the early days of introducing LC to a class as students learn what they can do within the framework of the roles, if the teacher models how to build up discussion, the classroom culture will become one where students learn that independent thinking and risk taking is valued (Simpson, 2010).

Student: ‘It used to be … basically you took turns just saying an opinion and you didn’t discuss it at all so it was just kind of like I believe blah blah blah blah blah - your turn — I think blah blah blah blah blah you didn’t really discuss it.’

Teacher: ‘I think it comes down to how rich the conversations can be rather than just a sharing of ideas session. When students shared in the past there was no deep discussion after it was just mainly move onto the next role …’

Literature Circle roles

The original LC roles including Word Wizard, Artful Artist, Literary Luminary and Creative Connector, were proposed as a systematic way to view texts from different ways of seeing (Daniels, 1994). In this way a shift in LC role can be like shaking the crystals in a kaleidoscope. With each change of role the image the student has of a book is fractured and remade to reveal a new pattern of meaning.

Literature Circle roles have been described in different ways with different names and by different scholars over time (Day, 2007; Pearson, 2010; Larson, 2014), and are then sometimes renamed by teachers as they create their own classroom resources. These roles (in Figures 2–4) serve to organise readers to approach the books from a variety of perspectives. The role names don’t matter, what is important is that the full range of LC roles can potentially match the full range of reader resources (Luke & Freebody, 1990).

Ann array of Literature Circle role cards

Figure 2: A sample of Literature Circle role cards

 

Student notebook and Literature Circle role card

Figure 3: A student’s preparation notes as Literary Luminary

Student drawing a truck and the book Mahtab's Story adjacent

Figure 4: A student’s response as Artful Artist

As described by Day (2007) in her PETAA paper, all LC roles need students to decode accurately and build comprehension by using their reading skills as both text participant and text user. These kinds of roles encourage readers to express their personal opinion of a text by making connections to their own lives, asking ‘fat’ questions (questions that can be answered in more than one way) about the story, choosing a favourite part, providing definitions of words, researching background details, artistically depicting sections of text, mapping out character journeys, etc.


Other roles that have been devised to add to the original set (Day, 2007) such as Paradigm Profiler and Investigator are more challenging, requiring students to operate as text analysts by examining issues like the author’s intention in language choice, giving advice to a character, making value judgements. However, my observations of LC roles used by pre-service teacher education students over ten years, and more recent research in the classroom shows that when a teacher models dialogic interaction alongside the roles and has high expectations of their students, all LC roles have the potential to become prompts for critical and creative thinking. The secret is in scaffolding the dialogue to include not just personal but also informed aesthetic response, which encourages students to view a book as something someone wrote.

To achieve this kind of thinking as illustrated in the quote below, students need to build meta-awareness of literary techniques, understand the potential of each role and the importance of collaborative discussion if they are to enrich their understanding of the texts. As Pearson showed in her study of students’ talk in Literature Circles this kind of thinking takes time to develop but it is worth it, ‘if our aim is for children to use more elaborated reasoning and for them to back up their opinions with explicit reference to the text’ (Pearson, 2010, page 9).

‘I believe that one of the most important parts occurred at the end of chapter 3 (student quotes a character’s speech from the book) — “I am sorry shaking her head … I don’t really like you”. That lead up to everything that happened later in the book and I think its really going to affect how he’s going to try to be’

Refreshing the roles through the Australian Curriculum: English

The way to achieve this shift in the use of Literature Circles is by viewing all LC roles with potential levels of complexity that students can achieve if prompted successfully.

The literature sub strands from the Australian Curriculum: English (ACE) responding to text, literature in context, examining literature and creating literature provide a frame that could help teachers plan their approach to LC roles in ways that require students to incorporate experiential, aesthetic, cognitive, interpretive and clarifying approaches to reading. The intended impact being that students ‘learn to identify personal ideas, experiences and opinions about literary texts and discuss them with others. They learn how to recognise areas of agreement and difference, and how to develop and refine their interpretations through discussion and argument.’ (ACARA, 2014). As an exercise, if we align some of the original LC roles from Daniels (1994) with components from the ACE, it is possible to see how LC could encourage readers to expand their understanding of language and literature by employing different literacy skills. An example follows.

Aligning Literature Circle roles to the Australian Curriculum: English

Creator Connector

Explore the ways that ideas and viewpoints in literary texts drawn from different historical, social and cultural contexts may reflect or challenge the values of individuals and groups ACELT1626

Literary Luminary

Discuss how authors and illustrators make stories exciting, moving and absorbing and hold readers’ interest by using various techniques, for example character development and plot tension ACELT1605

Artful Artist

Create imaginative texts based on characters, settings and events from students’ own and other cultures using visual features, for example perspective, distance and angle ACELT1601

Discussion Director

Reflect on ideas and opinions about characters, settings and events in literary texts, identifying areas of agreement and difference with others and justifying a point of view ACELT1620

Stories from the classroom

A group of three teachers recently reframed their approach to LC in their Stage 3 classrooms during a small professional development project run at their school in inner Sydney with an academic partner. At the start of the project the teachers identified as their focus an exploration of ways they could scaffold their students to build their engagement with literary texts on levels of personal and critical comprehension through LC. One teacher describes his goal at the start as:

Originally I viewed it as an opportunity for students to share their views on a set role. Whether it being the Character Captain or Vocabulary Enricher, I viewed it more as a community sharing session around a common text. 

Later through his experience of observing the students learn to use dialogic interaction to improve their thinking he realised how important the discursive aspect was. As he states in his reflection:

I now view LC as opportunities for students to develop some key 21st century skills – these include critical thinking – Allowing students to justify their opinions based on other students challenging their viewpoints. Students are developing greater communication skills, as they are involved in deep thinking and rich conversation about a text they all know. Students are collaborating together and piggybacking on others’ ideas. This change in practice has led to students actually changing their opinion based on challenges from others. Also they are using the text to justify their opinion. As the tasks cards (the LC roles) are generally open ended it allows students to choose how to present / discuss something from a role which is also developing their creative thoughts.

Two crucial factors led to the teacher’s new insight into his teaching practice. First the teachers took the time to critically reflect on the impact of their pedagogic decisions on the students’ learning. They looked at how the LC were running and saw that — although the roles had been carefully introduced so students knew what to do as individuals — the roles were not leading the students to have rich conversations about the books they read. Rather the teachers were observing cyclical presentations of work previously written in journals (Refer to the earlier reflection by the teacher after the PD). Second the teachers thought of small innovations on the way the LC groups were set up and scaffolded so that there were more levels of supports provided that helped students to work together as a team.

Innovations to Literature Circles

Literature Circles are meant to be a flexible scaffold not a lock step process so teachers can adapt roles and implementation strategies as they wish. For example, in the school that participated in the professional development, after the first round of LC was trialled the teachers realised that the discussion was not flowing as well as they had hoped, so they regrouped and introduced two changes. The first change was to have two or more students running the same role in each LC meeting so that the role was interpreted in different ways. This innovation immediately led to richer dialogue, as the other students were able to compare and contrast and make connections between what each of their peers had said. Also, instead of trying to discuss more roles for shorter times, the paired /grouped roles gave the students more time to focus on fewer roles for longer periods of time during their LC session. The talk was more productive. As the teacher reports:

The changes were very simple but made a huge difference to the outcomes. Instead of all students having a role to discuss they had 2 roles. Three students would focus on one and 3 on the other. This allowed for the discussions to be richer rather than just the sharing.

The second change was the introduction of a set of dialogic prompts to ensure that students paid attention not just to the content of the discussion but also to the way they were using discussion to find out more about the books. The prompts were based on the sentence types of statement, questions and exclamation and were signalled by the punctuation marks: . ? and !. The dialogic prompts were named piggyback . = a statement that built on what someone else had said, questioning ? = a follow up question for clarification and challenge ! = an opposing opinion.

The use of these prompts resulted in far greater interaction between the students. In the teacher’s own words:

We created three cards — piggyback, challenge and question cards that the students could pick up while another member was talking. I believe these three cards have made the most difference as they have allowed for greater, deeper, richer conversations … Also due to the cards we had to spend a few sessions working on social skills — Understanding that an opinion is an opinion and that when someone doesn’t agree with you they are not arguing with you personally — it’s the opinion they do not agree with.

Assessment through Literature Circles

One way of assessing what the roles achieved for these students can be found by considering a dialogic excerpt recorded in the classroom research. An Artful Artist who had depicted part of the book (for example, a character, a moment, a setting) showed their work to the group but the discussion did not end there. The prompt for interaction was carried on as the role of the Artful Artist encouraged others to depict a part of the text read and / or prompt discussion with others about the meaning they gained from the depictions portrayed. For example, when a child’s depiction of the character Nanberry (French, 2011) was shown to one LC group the discussion was rich as students debated the interpretation, which showed a face drawn half black and half white (Figure 5).

Studnets drawing with comments (supplied as text only adjacent)

Figure 5: A student’s depiction of a character in role as Artful Artist

Text for Figure 5 (comments): Artful Artist: ‘I’ve drawn the book, like not the cover but how he is black but he is living with white people.’ Student 1: ‘I like how you did the whole book and not just a scene and how you drew all the different weapons to show they were opposites in his life.’ Student 2: ‘If you look closely it represents much more than just those two different sides, it represents hope as well as he was the one who translated the words to the English.’

In another classroom snapshot a Clever Connector started the dialogue stating how they found a way to link the reading to their own life, world knowledge and / or other texts and the group continued to discuss the ideas by building on what they heard to investigate the meaning of the story. For example, in a LC group for the book Wonder (Palacio, 2012) one student said:

This book connects to The Fault in our Stars where throughout the whole book Hazel’s mum protects her from life, like from the teenager regular things that all children would do and then eventually mum lets Hazel go and enjoy like teenage stuff and I’m hoping this will happen later in the book.

In response another student made a different text-to-text connection saying:

In the chapter The Bleeding Scream Jack, Julien and Mummy no2 were talking about how to get rid of August and then August runs away and hides and cries in the bathroom and when I read this it reminded me of, you know, that little kid’s book where the hedgehog gets crazy hair day and pyjama day mixed up and then he gets sad cause he came with crazy hair and everyone else is in pyjamas and then he ran to the bathrooms and he cried. That’s just what it reminded me of.

In each of these snippets of dialogue it is possible to see that these readers have learned that their role is not just to present their opinion or show a product rather they see their responsibility to the group as taking part in a dialogue. It is clear from the students’ behaviour that their teacher recognised it was more beneficial to model an open-ended, more expansive version model of the LC roles so that they had the potential to become critical prompts for dialogue.

Assessment of these students’ dialogic interaction would reveal much about how they are responding to literature and examining literature as well as other outcomes.

By observing the students working in their reading groups, taking notes and making recordings of discussions, LC offer grounded opportunities for the teachers to assess children’s understanding without pen and paper tests. The LC systematically prompted rich responses to text that could not be found without putting students in the drivers’ seats and letting them talk about texts guided by their own personal responses and directed towards more critical responses. Larson describes how after participating in an online LC, her students reviewed a transcript of their discussions and reflected on the value of their experience as well as examined their linguistic choices and expressions of opinion (Larson, 2014). The teachers at this school played students recordings of their own discussion, which helped the students begin to reflect on their discussions about the books they read. This led the students to recognise how they were using talk to build understanding and helped them to reflect on their learning.

Outcomes

It is clear from the way that LC ran in this school that dialogic teaching ‘is not just any old talk’. Rather, when students are scaffolded by prompts to build discussion around a literary text, dialogic teaching ‘harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend student thinking and advance their learning and understanding’ (Alexander, 2014). The outcomes for the students could be coded across different syllabus documents or the ACE as they relate to opportunities to: use language and think critically, imaginatively, creatively and interpretively; examine how language choices in literature impact on meaning; respond to and compose texts; reflect thoughtfully about personal learning strategies; read, view and discuss literary texts; consider how contextual knowledge impacts on understanding. These are just some of the outcomes for students that could be supported through LC, as dialogic learning encourages students to respond to text, examine text, understand literature in context and enjoy reading.

The description of outcomes by the teachers in the study provides an understanding grounded in what the students achieved through their participation in the LC. In their words, use of LC in this classroom has led to:

Deeper richer conversations — critical thinking, students using evidence to back up their or a peer’s idea. Allowing students to justify their opinions and having the rich discussion — Some of the students have reported that they didn’t understand some aspects of the text but the [LC] meeting cleared up some misconceptions.

In addition some students reported that they their opinions changed based on hearing other students perspective. So again I believe a rich discussion creates a successful book club [LC].

They recognise that more could be done to broaden the use of technology maybe to create a digital archive of the conversations by running them in an online environment in ‘21st century learning spaces’ but are very happy to see how far learning outcomes for these three groups of children shifted across a school term.

Summary

Literature Circles are a pedagogic strategy that supports engagement with literary texts through purposeful dialogue. When LC work well it is because they have been set up by teachers who recognise two key principles. First, they understand the importance of dialogic pedagogy that includes purposeful talk, reciprocal turn taking, collective focus, and opportunities for cumulative learning in a supportive environment (Alexander, 2004). Second the teacher affirms through their organisation of LC reading groups how enjoyment and self selected choice of reading material leads to greater reading achievement (Krashen, 2004).

As LC are small groups that depend on talk about a book, which students have chosen to read, they are the perfect scenario through which teachers can tap into substantive communication that helps to scaffold collaborative learning (Hammond, 2001). As Edwards-Groves said in the recent PETAA Paper 195, talk can play a crucial part in students’ learning but it works best when it is ‘talk with substance’ (2014, p. 11).

The strength of LC is best found when they are purposefully shaped by the teacher, not just as groups for sharing individual opinions but also as opportunities for participatory dialogue. If comprehension depends on being able to make meaning from a text, and ‘filling in the gaps’ (Williams, 1991; Gleeson, 2007) is part of learning to read good writing, then we need to help students read texts in ways that help them bridge meaning-making gaps. Through the dialogic pedagogy of LC we can support readers at all levels of ability to respond to literary texts while they enjoy learning how to read with critical understanding.

A final word from a teacher

Question: Did the literature circles meet your expectations of enabling your students to do something different in terms of their reading behaviour?

Answer: I feel students usually want to share/express their ideas and lit circles allow this in a well-structured but informal environment where students feel comfortable to take risks. 


My sincere thanks go to the teachers and students whose interest in learning made this PETAA Paper possible.

Alyson Simpson

November 2014

About the author

Alyson Simpson is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education University of Sydney. Her current research projects include work on the role of children’s literature in education, the power of dialogic learning and the impact of digital technology on reading practices and pedagogy.

References

How this content relates to AITSL teaching standards

Standard 2: Know the content and how to teach it

  • 2.1.2 Proficient Content and teaching strategies of the teaching area. Apply knowledge of the content and teaching strategies of the teaching area to develop engaging teaching activities.

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  • 2.1.3 Highly Accomplished Content and teaching strategies of the teaching area. Support colleagues using current and comprehensive knowledge of content and teaching strategies to develop and implement engaging learning and teaching programs.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Strategies for composite language classes

AITSL Certification Evidence: Developing a Cooperative Reading program to address underachievement and disengagement with reading in upper primary

  • 2.2.2 Proficient Content selection and organisation. Organise content into coherent, well-sequenced learning and teaching programs.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Developing a unit of work for filmmaking

  • 2.2.3 Highly Accomplished Content selection and organisation. Exhibit innovative practice in the selection and organisation of content and delivery of learning and teaching programs.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using inquiry based learning to support students' comprehension of informative texts

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using a feedback centred approach to improve teaching and learning

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Supporting students to develop independent, open ended learning investigations

  • 2.3.2 Proficient Curriculum, assessment and reporting. Design and implement learning and teaching programs using knowledge of curriculum, assessment and reporting requirements.
  • 2.5.2 Proficient Literacy and numeracy strategies. Apply knowledge and understanding of effective teaching strategies to support students’ literacy and numeracy achievement.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Improving Sentence Structure knowledge using oral language in Year 1

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using storyboards to develop multimodal texts

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Achieving multiple literacy outcomes through developing and composing multimodal texts

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Developing early literacy through explicit connections between meaning in text, oral language and image

Standard 3: Plan for and implement effective teaching and learning

  • 3.3.2 Proficient Use teaching strategies. Select and use relevant teaching strategies to develop knowledge, skills, problem solving and critical and creative thinking.
  • 3.3.3 Highly Accomplished Use teaching strategies. Support colleagues to select and apply effective teaching strategies to develop knowledge, skills, problem solving and critical and creative thinking.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Digital professional learning on the ethical use of information

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Professional learning in action — Ethical use of information

  • 3.5.2 Proficient Use effective classroom communication. Use effective verbal and non-verbal communication strategies to support student understanding, participation, engagement and achievement.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using a variety of tools to effectively communicate with students in an early primary classroom

Standard 4: Create and maintain supportive and safe learning environments

  • 4.1.2 Proficient Support student participation. Establish and implement inclusive and positive interactions to engage and support all students in class activities.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Differentiating language access to engage a variety of students in learning

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using drama and performance based approaches to explore and engage with texts

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using music to support inclusion and language development in early learners

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Holistic care to support learning

  • 4.1.3 Highly Accomplished Support student participation. Model effective practice and support colleagues in implementing inclusive strategies that engage and support all students.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Experiential learning through excursions and hands on experiences

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Supporting gifted students and their teachers

Standard 5: Assess, provide feedback and report on student learning

  • 5.1.2 Proficient Assess student learning. Develop, select and use informal and formal, diagnostic, formative and summative assessment strategies to assess student learning.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Using formative assessment practices with students in the classroom

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Approaches to ongoing informal assessment

  • 5.1.3 Highly Accomplished Assess student learning. Develop and apply a comprehensive range of assessment strategies to diagnose learning needs, comply with curriculum requirements and support colleagues to evaluate the effectiveness of their approaches to assessment.

AITSL Illustration of Practice: Collegial discussions about forms of assessment

Standard 6: Engage in professional learning

  • 6.2.2 Proficient Engage in professional learning and improve practice. Participate in learning to update knowledge and practice, targeted to professional needs and school and/or system priorities.