Literature Circles: Holding Student Led Discussions

July 27, 2021

If students are new to literature circles or if you want students to be able to run their own discussions, a highly structured format is a must.

You've decided on the books and how to group students, but now you will have to decide how you'd like to structure the discussions those groups will have. I am not a fan of using assigned roles during literature circles because I find it can lead to superficial engagement with the text. Student can hyper focus on fulfilling their role of writing a summary, defining unknown words, etc. and then don’t have much else to contribute to the discussion. I’ve run literature circle discussions in two different ways and have found success with both.

This first option is highly structured, so it is perfect if students are new to literature circles or if you want students to be able to run their own discussions. It works well for discussions held about once a week and after a significant chunk of reading. 

Preparing for Student Led Discussions
Each student receives the same discussion preparation sheet that includes elements of traditional literature circle roles. Students are asked to summarize the assigned section of their book, pick out challenging vocabulary, illustrate a key scene, track the themes of the book, and develop discussion questions. At the top of this preparation page, I have students record the pages they need to read in order to complete their preparation and the date they will need to be prepared by.

During the Discussion
Students take turns leading and taking notes on the discussion using a recording sheet. I choose the leader for each meeting, starting with a student I know will get the group off to a strong start. The recording sheet creates accountability for the leader as well as the other members of the group. The sheet has directions stating how many students should share during each part of the discussion, which matches up with the parts of the preparation sheet. During the first discussion, the leader can choose any student. In following discussions, I make note of students who have already contributed and should not be chosen again until everyone has had a turn with that part.

Despite the discussion being highly structured, I do want it to be a discussion, not just one student sharing after the other without any interaction between students. To help students respond after someone else has shared, I have a slide of sentence frames displayed on my whiteboard during the discussion and the group leader will select some students to share responses; students may also volunteer to respond to others. As the groups become more comfortable with the structure of the discussion and talking with each other, there will be more of a natural flow and less of a need for the leader to call on students to respond.

Setting Students Up For Success
I don't expect literature circle discussions to feel comfortable for students from the start, even with such a structured organization. One thing I do to help students feel more comfortable is to first use the preparation sheet with a text all students have read. As a whole class we share examples for each part of the preparation sheet. I come prepared with "bad" examples (poor quality preparation) and ask students for feedback on what others did well and what I could improve. Students need the most help with creating meaningful discussion questions, so that section of the preparation sheet may have to be reviewed again after all students participate in their first discussion. I like to make a T- chart and have students sort questions into "after one person responds, no one would have anything else to add" and " students would have different responses or additional examples to add."

Then I select students to model a discussion while others watch. I'll review the format and timing of the discussion. I also take part in this model discussion and, depending on the class, will model the group leader role or model a poorly participating group member. Again, I'll ask for whole class feedback on what others did well and what I could improve.

The Teacher As An Observer
When I use this style of discussion, all book groups meet at the same time in the same classroom so it isn’t possible for me to be a part of all of the discussions. I can float between the groups and jump in when someone gets stuck. Groups use the camera on an iPad to record their discussions so I can listen to them later. Students record only the audio of their discussions; they start recording and then place the iPad face down so no images are captured (much less distracting for students). Besides holding students accountable, having the recording sheet to review while listening ensures that I know who was speaking and when. I use a rubric to score students preparation for and participation in the discussion.

Read on to learn about holding teacher led discussions.

If students are new to literature circles or if you want students to be able to run their own discussions, a highly structured format is a must.

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  1. Hey

    I appreciate your well-thought-out approach to literary circles. Am I able to get access to the discussion preparate sheet you mention in your post?

  2. Same question as Luke. It is there a method you use for promoting the student led discussions?