When I use literature circles in my classroom, my students choose their own books to read and meet daily in small groups to discuss what they are reading. Each student has a personal literature response journal made with several sheets of binder paper stapled into construction paper (they make these themselves). The first page of the journal is the directions sheet which students follow to guide them through reading, writing, and talking about their books. The front of the directions sheet has an overview of the process. The back of the directions sheet has a list of questions students use to guide their discussion.
Each day, students read, write, talk in groups, and then write again.
The independent reading time lasts for for twenty or thirty minutes, followed by a ten-minute "quick write" time when they write in their journals about what they've just read. This writing can be a favorite part, a list of questions, or a personal reflection.
After their "quick write" students meet in groups to discuss their books, using the list of questions on the back of their directions sheet. The questions refer sequentially to character, setting, plot points, problems and goals, character relationships, and personal reflections on the story. These questions are generic enough to work with most fiction books. All students in the group respond to the same two questions each day, to facilitate comparison of different books. They are also encouraged to ask each other questions about the stories they are reading.
After everyone has talked about their reading, the group breaks up and students write more extensively in their journals, this time reflecting on their group discussion and their personal responses to the question or questions discussed during the group time.
This structure requires very little teacher direction during its process. I wander from group to group while they are meeting to listen in, and collect the literature journals each day to read students' written responses to their books. Sometimes I make a written comment on the students' writings. Other times I write an additional question or ask for some clarification about something they have written. Students then use my questions and/or comments as a jump-off point for their next written responses.
I have had students successfully participate in literature groups even when some students are reading short stories and others are reading novels. One student in a group may read three short books to another student's one longer novel, but they still have an equal opportunity for responding orally and in writing to their reading.
I like doing these circles because students become empowered to make their own choices, to pace themselves, and to choose appropriate books for their reading level.... and also because students enjoy it!
Renee Goularte is an elementary teacher and writer who has worked with students from Kindergarten through Sixth Grade. She has been teaching since 1988, and has a Master's Degree in Elementary Education. Her favorite book on teaching reading is Radical Reflections by Mem Fox.