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Voices from the Middle Moving from Print to Practice, December 2012 (20.2) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Grouping (Vol 20, No 2)

In the “Framework for 21st Century Learning,” the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has articulated its vision for learning that emphasizes core academic subjects, but goes further to include essential skills for success in our world, such as “critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and collaboration.” (See

In this issue, we focus on group work to build core content knowledge in language arts and to support students’ development in all of the areas of 21st century learning, beginning with communication and collaboration. We know that in order to build skills in communication and collaboration, and to foster critical thinking and problem solving, our students need to work in groups. We also know that young adolescents are social beings and thrive on communication with peers. As their teachers, we must strive to use that social nature in meaningful and purposeful ways that will support communication and collaboration and meet our core academic goals.

Literature Circles

General Discussion Topic

“The ‘Us’ in Discuss: Grouping in Literature Circles by Katherine Batchelor and “Digital Storytelling: Reinventing Literature Circles” by Maryann Tobin give different perspectives on a popular concept in language arts classrooms and a staple when talking about groups: literature circles. Popularized by Harvey Daniels, literature circles are small, peer-led discussion groups that can be configured in a variety of ways. Literature circles are often formed based on student choice of a common reading. For more, see Daniels’s literature circles website at

Literature circles in a language arts classroom are used to foster discussion and construct meaning as students prepare for and lead discussions. If you have never tried literature circles in your classroom, what is holding you back? Does the thought of turning over control to your students create anxiety? Begin by talking with colleagues, examining the articles in this issue, and listening to the accompanying podcasts. What are the essential components of successful literature circles? How can you begin to implement those ideas in your classroom? Do you know anyone who uses literature circles in your school? Can you observe his or her practice as a way to get started?

Key Points

  • Students enjoy literature circles because the activity keeps them engaged while providing support via discussions and camaraderie.
  • Literature circle groups are formed through text choice rather than by reading ability.
  • Literature circles are a key factor in helping students discover reading as a pleasurable, social experience.
  • Literature circles can use traditional print text, or they can be updated to include a multimodal, technological component.
  • Digital storytelling works well with the versatility of literature circles, allowing for multimodal activities.
  • In any form of literature circles, the division of labor provides coordination of the activity and gives each participant a directed purpose for their interaction with the text.

Common Core Connection

Not only does the use of literature circles as a method for comprehending and discussing texts support all of the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, the collaboration and communication demands align with the following standards for speaking and listening.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 6–12
Comprehension and Collaboration

  1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Grade 8 standards in this category include: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.

  1. Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion.
  2. Follow rules for collegial discussions and decision-making, track progress toward specific goals and deadlines, and define individual roles as needed.
  3. Pose questions that connect the ideas of several speakers and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant evidence, observations, and ideas.
  4. Acknowledge new information expressed by others, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views in light of the evidence presented.

Using These Articles with Your Team

Literature circles may seem like an idea that is confined to the language arts classroom, but it does not have to be. Talk with your colleagues about the kinds of reading material they are using in other content areas.

  • Is the science teacher using any informational texts that could be a source of rich discussions in small groups? How can you work together to read material and cover science content in one classroom and use that same material for literature circle discussion in language arts?
  • How can you become a content expert for your team and teach colleagues how to foster literature circle-type discussions in other content areas? We’ve already suggested that you observe someone else who might be a good model of literature circle discussions. Could you be that resource for someone else?
  • How could you and your colleagues take the articles in this issue and model a literature circle-type discussion in your own professional learning community? Try dividing this issue up among small groups of teachers for discussion.

Why Not Try This?

A big part of successful literature circle discussions is making sure that you help students begin with a strong foundation so that they are comfortable discussing their response to literature with each other. This may involve using a variety of team- and class-building ideas before diving into discussions of text.

Batchelor invites us to think about this idea as she suggests allowing students to create rules for regulating reading. She also recommends getting to know other group members by collecting information such as what kind of music or video games they like. Tobin emphasizes the needs for teachers to monitor discourse, working more closely with students at the beginning, but reducing that scaffolding as students become more independent.

Resources for team- and class-building activities:

  • Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke’s book Mini Lessons for Literature Circles provides a multitude of ideas for all aspects of literature circles. In this free sample, you can read about a Membership Grid as a way to collect the kind of information for group sharing Batchelor describes.

  • Survival scenarios and other collaborative decision-making activities can help your students establish rapport with one another and create group discussion rules and procedures before they are ready for literature circles. Here is a website with many examples:

  • Kagan and Kagan (2009) suggest having teams build shelters to protect themselves from an imaginary rainstorm using nothing but newspaper and masking tape. I once had students build a structure that the whole team could stand in out of dry spaghetti and marshmallows.

Source: Kagan Cooperative Learning (Spencer Kagan and Miguel Kagan, Kagan Publishing, 2009)


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