Academic Exchange Quarterly     Winter    2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  4

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements  or   text lay-out and pagination.

 

Lit circles, collaboration and student interest

 

Debra Eckerman Pitton, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

 

Dr. Pitton, Associate Professor of Education,  teaches secondary and middle level methodology at Gustavus Adolphus College and has published Mentoring the Novice Teacher with Corwin press.

 

Abstract

Classroom teachers often seek instructional methods that will engage young people in collaborative learning experiences. Literature circles (lit circles) have been identified as one means of providing a collaborative educational experience. But what does this process look like in a classroom and how do students respond to this method? This article explores the implementation of literature circles in a middle level classroom and the impact on student interest in reading and student interaction.

Teachers often find student interest in reading wanes during the middle school years. Even students who seem to enjoy reading find that other interests interfere with their desire to pick up a book. Yet the ability to comprehend what one is reading and to go beyond the surface text to make inferences are skills that are crucial for continued success in school and ongoing learning. Helping middle level students learn to analyze and think critically about what they read is essential to their success. Students who do not read for pleasure but only do so when they are completing school assignments is a problem that can affect students’ future learning and academic success (Sullivan, 2002).

It is important prevent this growing tide of aliteracy, the condition where one has the ability to read but chooses not to (Sullivan, 2002). Because of this concern, the goals of secondary language arts education are to get students interested in reading and to help them find enjoyment in reading and talking about books.

Working collaboratively is another skill that young people need to develop. Most individuals like to get together and talk about what they are interested in and what they find enjoyable. This is also true with books. Book clubs are surfacing everywhere because people who enjoy reading are finding ways to talk about what they read. Lit circles have been identified as a means of developing this collaborative process in the classroom.

This focus on student engagement in discussions of readings as well as higher-level thinking should be strong components in language arts classes.  Indeed, the “literature centered reading-as-thinking mentality is . . . reflected in some state standards and assessments.  Some progressive states like Michigan have mandated that (students) be able to ‘connect what they read to their own lives’ and other goals harmonious not just with skill development but true lifelong reading” (Daniels (2002, p. 5). Students who develop these skills also do better on standardized reading tests. While much of the research has been in elementary classrooms or focused on other outcomes, Daniels’ research did have positive results.  In his study, eighth grade students in Chicago who were in classrooms where literature circles strategies were used scored 10 percent higher than students in other city schools on the city-wide reading test (Daniels, 2002, p. 8).  However, none of these positive results can be accomplished if students are unwilling to read.

During a literature circles exploration in a college methods course, pre-service teachers raised questions about the benefits of literature circles for early adolescents. These future teachers wondered if providing choice and peer-lead discussions via literature circle methodology would ‘hook’ middle level students – getting them to read more and enabling them to discuss what they read at a higher level. They wondered if pre-adolescents could truly collaborate and critically discuss literature without the daily guidance and direction of the teacher.

In response to these questions, an investigation was begun. Two teachers from a small, suburban middle school agreed to collaborate in this process. The students in their three sections of eighth grade were predominantly from middle class families. Many of the students were struggling to find success in the language arts class – with grades consistently falling in the low C and D range.  According to their teachers, this was often because these students did not complete the reading assignments. There was very little cultural diversity among these students, (the classes enrolled one African American student and one Latino student) although there was a wide range of academic ability.

The teachers for these classes had never used literature circles, preferring to utilize a teacher-directed, whole class approach to the study of literature. These teachers voiced concerns about their students’ disinterest in reading and lack of involvement in class discussions. They wanted to find ‘a better way’ to engage all of their students in reading. We decided to try literature circles as a method, using Daniels’ (2002) book as a starting point.

We began by creating a survey that was designed to gather information about students’ interest in reading and discussion of literature. We wanted to see if there would be any difference in scores on this student interest survey following the implementation of a literature circles unit, and whether the students preferred working together or individually when reading and discussion literature. The survey was the start of a 9-week, team-taught literature circles unit.

Using Nancy Atwell’s ideas about student choice in book selection (Atwell, 1989) and incorporating an adaptation of Daniels’ role sheet process, (Daniels, 2002, chap 7) we developed a unit that gave students a choice about which novel they read and also used literature circle discussions conducted by the students. With a range of reading abilities present in the room, we sought to differentiate the level of the texts selected. As Tomlinson has stated, varying the books based on readability offers students the opportunity to meet objectives while engaging in a novel that fits their skill level (Tomlinson, 2001).

 

In selecting our sets of books, the readability of each book was a determining factor, as well as a link to the theme of ‘survival’. The teachers had used the survival theme previously with a single text, so we decided to use it as an over arching theme, a connection between all of the books students would read. We began the unit with an exploration of the concept of survival, linking to current television programs as well as current events. The survey was given to each student to complete, asking them to identify their reading habits and interest. This same survey was to be given to students at the conclusion of the unit. The results of this pre-test indicated that only about half of the class expressed an interest in reading, while 36% of the class agreed that they ‘prefer to do anything other than read’. In addition, the class was split regarding how comfortable they were with sharing ideas about books and discussing literature with their peers.

Throughout this unit of study, mini-lessons were conducted that provided an opportunity for students to learn and review various reading skills as well as group interaction skills. Practice in using the role sheets and understanding what was expected from each role was also included early in the unit.  Using short stories, students were asked to complete abbreviated role sheets (Daniels, p. 107 & 112) so they could practice discussions guided by the teachers.

Collaborative skills were also identified as a focus for this unit. Students practiced interaction and discussion skills before they launched into their literature circles study through mini discussions on brief readings.  These were followed by debriefings about how they worked in groups and what they could do to enhance their peers’ interactions. Because increasing students’ ability to work effectively in groups was an objective, team building activities were also conducted and connections were made to the concept of survival and the necessity of relying on others at many times to survive in various situations. After each regular literature circle discussion, students were asked to assess their own and the group’s effectiveness. Class time was also spent reviewing how to ask open-ended questions (rather then closed, fact-based questions) and looking at connections between the literature, current events and personal experiences in order to enhance the roles of questioner (discussion director) and the researcher (investigator).

Other mini-lessons focused on the review and introduction of literary terminology. In their book groups, students were given definitions and terms in puzzle form and had to match them to complete the puzzle.  Examples of the terms were located and shared, and students were asked to find examples from the books they that were reading.  About three-fourths of the way into the unit, each literature circle group wrote a group essay using self-selected literature terms and applying them to their book by locating and describing examples. The student work that was produced during this time identified that students were meeting the objectives regarding their ability to use literary terms in discussing their books, and to think at higher levels.

Perhaps the most excitement was generated when the students exchanged journals and role sheets to create a quiz for another group.  We talked about ‘fair’ questions, ‘content’ questions and ‘application’ questions, and the students were excited to take their peer-developed quiz and to see how other teams did on the assessment they created.

At the heart of the unit were the student discussion groups.  Early in the unit, students were given a ‘book talk’ and read brief sections from each book.  Students were allowed to choose their own book, identifying their ‘top three’ choices. As teachers, we took into account student ability and social relationships to establish groups that were somewhat balanced.  However, some students with less ability selected more complex books, while some students who might easily read Steinbeck chose texts that were not as challenging. We honored the students’ choices, and groups were formed based on their selection, with individuals getting either their first or second choice book. Each group then established a schedule of reading, based on the dates we set and the end date for the unit.

In excerpts from the group essays, you can see student understanding of literary terms in their writing. Reading The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton, a student contributed this statement to his group essay on conflict: “Person vs. himself/herself type of conflict is when a character can’t decide what to do.  An example of this is when Ponyboy doesn’t know if he should tell Darry and Sodapop where he is or not. It is an example of the literary term because it tells us that Ponyboy is puzzled about what he should tell his brothers. This has impact in the book because Ponyboy wants to get closer to Darry but doesn’t know how to make it happen, and that causes all sorts of problems.”  And while reading The Pigman, another student wrote, “First person point of view uses ‘I’ when telling the story. This gives you a good idea of what the person is really feeling.  If The Pigman was not written in first person, we would not have gotten the in-depth look at what each of the two main characters were thinking and feeling.”

In another assessment, the reader response journal, you can hear students make connections between the book and their own lives.  From a group reading Shark Beneath the Reef, a student wrote in her journal, “The author does a nice job with suspense in this chapter. When Tomas goes down in the water for so long I get nervous, especially when he saw the shark’s tail. I would’ve been really scared and swam away.” From a student reading Charlie Skeddadle, “ I thought it was cool the way she described the snow.  She says that ‘it glistened and made the mountains look beautiful.’  I thought that was important because then the reader can picture the scene in their head.  She (the author) uses this kind of describing throughout the entire book.”  Yet another student wrote, “I think The Outsiders is a great book filled with adventure and real life.  It shows the meaning of friendship and family.  When Johnny writes that letter to Ponyboy I finally understood something that I hadn’t before.  When Johnny said ‘Stay gold, stay gold.” He wanted Ponyboy to stay good the way he was.”

Throughout the unit, it was clear the students were thinking about what they were reading in more thoughtful, critical ways. In one role sheet, a student completing the ‘connector role’ wrote “In The Diary of Anne Frank, you can see why they (the people in hiding) are arguing because they’ve been stuck together for too long. When I’m with my friends for a whole day or overnight, we sometimes get sick of each other.” On another role sheet, the discussion director for a group reading Charlie Skedaddle moved beyond the ‘so what happened?’ question and asked deeper questions about the book such as: “Why was Charlie sad after he killed a soldier when that was what he said he wanted to do all along?”  These questions, and others like it, produced interesting and insightful conversations among the students.

We were all pleased that the students were working so hard and really thinking and talking about what they read. This certainly didn’t mean that every day was a smooth ride. Some groups got off task easily and we constantly had to circulate and help them re-focus.  Some students did not spend the time preparing their daily work and were chastised by their peers for their seeming ‘lack of effort’.  We found that we had to return to our team building and group interaction lessons frequently to help groups work through their differences. Because the students were producing role sheets and journals and group response, we were able to gather lots of anecdotal evidence about their work.  Rubrics were used to score all of the student work, and everything was kept in a portfolio so each group had a record of all of its work.

At the end of the unit, students took the same survey that they did at the start of the unit. There were 66 students who took both the pre- and post-tests. Student scores were coded and the names removed. Eyeballing the scores, it was evident that there were some changes in student response to the questions between the pre- and post-test.  However, there was not an overwhelming shift in scores, so what these changes meant was unclear.

The difference between the pre and post-test was calculated for each student’s response to each question, and a Wilcoxon Matched-Pairs Signed-Ranks test was conducted to see if there was any significant change in student responses after the literature circles unit. The z scores calculated for all questions identified that the change was not significant for any of the questions.

Finding no significant difference in scores was interesting to the investigators. While we didn’t have statistical support for literature circles as a means of enhancing student enjoyment of reading or peer discussions, the teachers agreed that it had appeared that the students had been enthusiastic readers during our unit. Even though we had observed highly engaged student conversations and reviewed thoughtful written work that seemed to reflect interest and involvement on the part of the students, there was no evidence that this method correlated with greater student interest in reading or preference for collaborative discussions. Our curiosity aroused, we went in search of ‘the rest of the story’ and decided to look at student responses on an individual level.

As we discussed our findings, we felt it was important to learn more about why some students seemed to be less excited about picking up a book to read at the conclusion of the literature circle unit, as well as why some seemed a bit more interested in reading. The survey results were reviewed, focusing on the questions related to interest in reading. Any score for these questions that shifted either up or down on the scale was identified.  This shift was categorized as ‘the student’s reaction to the use of literature circles in relation to their interest in reading and collaboration with peers in discussions.’ The total numerical change in score was not calculated, but each response that changed in some way between the pre- and post-test was identified. The resulting shifts in student responses were divided into the following categories:

Negative Reaction Category = a student response that:

is a score that indicates the student was less in agreement with the statement: “I enjoy picking up a book to read when I have free time” than they were before the unit. (N = 7 )

OR

is a score that indicates the student was more in agreement with the statement: “I prefer to do anything other than read a book” than they were before the unit. (N = 17)

Total scores in negative reaction category = 24

Positive Reaction Category = a student response that:

is a score that indicates the student was more in agreement with the statement: “I enjoy picking up a book to read when I have free time” than they were before the unit. (N = 20)

OR

identify a score that indicates the student was less in agreement with the statement: “I prefer to do anything other than read a book” than they were before the unit. (N = 15)

Total scores in positive reaction category = 35

No Change Category = a student response that:

is a score that does not change from the pre-test to the post-test

 

Subcategories identified within the categories listed above are as follows:

Contradictory category = a student response to the two questions that:

places the student in both the positive and negative reaction categories (N = 4)

Double positive category = a student response that:

places the student in the positive reaction category twice (N = 4)

Double negative category = a student response that:

places the student in the negative reaction category twice (N = 4)

 

Following the literature circles unit, the classroom teachers conducted a whole class unit using another novel. At the end of this unit, students were randomly selected from the defined reaction categories (listed above) for interviews. Three students were randomly selected from the ‘positive’ group and three were selected from the ‘negative’ group.  In addition, one student from the ‘double negative category’, one from the ‘double positive category’ and one from the ‘contradictory category’ were randomly selected, with care taken to ensure that no one student was representing more than one category. Interviews were conducted with these nine students, using the following questions:

Questions for literature circles follow up:

 

1) What was it that you liked or didn’t like about literary circles?

 

2)   You indicated on your survey that your interest in picking up a book to read went (up / down) after the literature circles unit.  Can you recall why you might have answered this way?

 

3) After you completed your literary circle unit, you read a book as a whole class.  Did you find the whole class discussion approach easier /harder/ more enjoyable/more challenging than the literature circles unit?

4) Would you prefer to have further studies in literature use the literature circles method, the whole class discussion of a book or a mixture of the two?  Why?

From the students in the negative reaction category who shifted to a less favorable response to reading a book, we heard these comments and many like them:

“I felt overwhelmed during the literature circles unit – we were always reading!”

“There are more people to share ideas when the whole class is reading the same book.”

“I feel more challenged when I work on my own to get the work done and not in a small group – I push myself harder that way when I am only responsible for myself.

“I felt like literature circles was too much work.”

“Things are easier when the whole class discusses together.”

“It was a challenge to keep up with the reading schedule we set in our literature circles group.”

“I didn’t like it when we disagreed on things in my group.”

“Sometimes the group goofed off and I don’t think I get as much done then.”

“Literature circles was fun, but sometimes it seemed like I had to keep the group moving – I had to do more work.”

“It’s just easier when the whole class is reading together.”

All of these student said they would prefer to read in a whole class setting where the teacher lead the discussion, although many said that it was more enjoyable discussing the books with their friends.

From the students in the positive reaction category, who shifted to a more positive interest in reading, we heard these comments and others of a similar nature:

“I like that I got to choose the book I read.”

“In the group you felt like you had to do your part so you would have stuff to talk about.”

“I prefer lit circles as a way to learn because groups force you to try harder to get your part done.  In a larger group you don’t always have to get your work done, you can sort of ‘hang back’ from the discussion. It was hard, though.”

“In lit circles you could do more, you are not reading for nothing – you are talking about what you read and you could draw pictures and do other stuff about the book that I like better.”

“Being able to discuss with everyone, you know what you learned, you get different points of view and it makes it easier to understand.” 

“You can ask questions in lit circles, it is easier to talk to a small group.”

“I felt more challenged in lit circles because I had to explain myself so my friends could get what I meant.”

The student from the double positive category was particularly pleased with literature circles, and repeatedly said how much he liked choosing their own book and talking in a relaxed way – not worrying about when the teacher would call on them and if they had the ‘right’ answer. While the responses were similar to those in the positive category, one comment was particularly poignant: “In lit circles I got to put in my ideas – that doesn’t usually happen when the whole class is doing it (discussing).”

The student from the double negative category echoed the comments from students in the negative category, although this statement seemed to reflect their overall sentiment: “I didn’t like depending on anther person to get my work done.  I prefer to get things done by myself.” Perhaps it is a learning preference, but this individual was particularly adamant that they didn’t like working in groups.  In addition, this individual expressed concern that some of their literary circles group might “be wrong in what they say about the book.  When the teacher leads the discussion, I know I am getting the right ideas about what we read.”

The student from the contradictory category summed up his perspective by saying, “ Lit circles weren’t bad – I mean, it was a lot more fun talking with our friends about what we read, and the book was OK.  But I had to actually do the reading because my friends would get on me if I wasn’t ready or goofed around. So I kinda like them but I didn’t like to have to always keep up on things. I have a life beyond school – basketball and stuff, and keeping up with the reading and the role sheets and the journals was a pain.”

From the survey results, the student work and the interviews with students, it is clear that while literature circles can generate interest in reading for some students, this collaborative learning process can be a ‘turn off’ for others. A critical point to be taken from this study is that teachers need to think carefully about individual student learning preference and how that impacts student interest in reading and student reaction to classroom instructional practices. It also is important to consider that some students may feel pushed to participate more in literature circles because they can’t ‘hide’ like they can in a large class discussion.  Educators need to consider that literature circles may be negatively perceived by students because they are expected to read more and think more critically than they may in a whole group setting.

What did we learn? While our data did not identify any results of statistical significance, individual survey results and subsequent analysis show that some students were more enthused about reading following the literature circles unit and some really enjoyed the collaborative process. The pattern of survey responses and interview comments also identified that there are students who do not like to be forced to work together, and this hindered their enjoyment of reading.  Whether this perception stems from the fact that some students may feel like they carry a greater load in a group discussion or feel they have to do more work to in a literature circle unit, these issues must be a factor in teacher decision making. Teachers must consider how they structure the group interaction to ensure that no one student consistently carries the responsibility of leading the literature circles.

Survey results and interview comments also identified students who felt that they were more involved in the discussion, more challenged and thus learned more from participating in the literature circles.  A strong wish for more learning experiences like literature circles was also expressed by these students during their interviews.  Certainly, whole class discussions of a single book are positive experiences for some students and literature circles are positive experiences for others.

While this study did not identify literature circles as a statistically significant way to get all students interested in reading, when you look at individual student data and responses, it is clear that some students react more positively to this collaborative reading process. It is important then, for teachers to recognize that differentiated instruction is not just about meeting the needs of one or two particular students, but must also address the preferred learning mode of all students.  When students feel that they have an opportunity to learn in a way that best meets their needs and enables them to be successful, they are more positive about the experience.  In this way, literature circles can have a positive impact on individual students’ interest in reading and support their learning.

In addition, teachers need to recognize that if they want their students to develop group interaction skills, some students will be pushed to work in ways that are not as comfortable for them.  However, we need to consider that whole class instruction is also uncomfortable for some students.  It becomes an issue of balance.  Teachers will want to balance their instruction between whole class and literature circle units. 

While it was important to acknowledge the validity of student reactions to literature circles methodology, the teachers felt that some negative student comments were actually positive. They were pleased by the student complaint that his/her life had been inconvenienced by the increased amount of reading the lit circle demanded. Use of a teaching methodology that that pushes students to work harder and complete school work before outside activities was a plus for the teachers.

The most exciting results from this study/unit were the actual work produced by the students. Journal reflections and final products reflected a high level of thinking and creativity. By placing the learning in their hands and allowing them to work collaboratively with their peers, students met the teachers’ expectations. Student interest in reading increased for some students when they were engaged in this preferred learning method and some students developed a greater comfort level about sharing their ideas and collaborating in their study of literature.

These results argue for more research regarding the use of literature circles in the classroom, and suggest that the implementation of some literature circle units within the curriculum may be appropriate as educators work to create school curricula that positively impacts a wider range of learners. We know we want our students to be engaged readers and to enjoy reading, and we need to keep searching for ways to make that happen. Literature circles can help.

References

Atwell, N. (1998). In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Daniels, H. (2002). Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs & Reading Groups 2nd Edition. Portland, MA: Stenhouse Publishers.

Sullivan, E. (2002). Reaching reluctant young readers: A handbook for librarians and teachers. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.

Tomlinson, C. (2001). How to Differentiate Instruction In

Mixed-Ability Classrooms 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.