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.
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.
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.