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Middle School Literature Circles

By Mary Blow on March 15, 2011
  • Grades: 6–8

Okay, I confess: I thrive on organization and structure in my classroom. My students like routines, and I like to know what progress each student is making on a daily basis. If you are like me, then your first experience with literature circles may just put you over the edge. Relinquishing control of my classroom was not easy.



Customizing Literature Circles

Moving_forward_in_lit_circlesHow I implement literature circles depends upon the learning outcomes for that unit. When I first implemented literature circles, the students in each group were assigned roles, as suggested by Harvey Daniels in Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups (2002). Scholastic has a great resource that expands upon Daniels' work: Moving Forward With Literature Circles by Dixie Lee Spiegel, Janet McLellan, Jennifer Pollack Day, and Valerie B. Brown. This was helpful in teaching students how to think; however, I struggled with students who would select a quote, passage, or a couple vocabulary words without actually reading the book. On the other hand, there were students who were in a reading frenzy, finishing books in a day or two. Literature circles became more of an independent study for them. Now, I customize the literature circles to target specific learning outcomes and meet the needs of my students.

After adopting the Understanding by Design framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, I redesigned the experience to focus on the enduring understandings, essential questions, and learning outcomes of the literature circles experience. Literature circles still provide voice and choice. However, I also have a follow-my-curriculum map. Each unit addresses specific learning standards, so it is important to ensure that all students acquire the targeted skills and knowledge.


Grouping Students

After engaging in a book talk, I give each student an index card. They put their names at the top. Underneath, they write their top three choices in order of preference. The cards create groups of four to five students based on choice, reading fluency, and compatibility. Students who read at similar reading rates experience less frustration. If a student finishes early, he or she can engage in enrichment activities.


Group Folders for Monitoring Progress

Each group receives a color-coded folder for storing group handouts. The folders are kept in the classroom, so if one student is absent, the rest of the group can still work. It also allows me to check up on student progress.

March_calendar Middle school students sometimes struggle with long-range goals. To help them plan ahead, I give them a blank calendar, with due dates and other relevant dates on it, which is kept in the folder. Students analyze the calendar, and after a group discussion, they schedule their own assignments. As soon as my 6th graders are in control of their own homework, they are highly motivated to read. Motivation is so high that they often assign themselves more reading than I would, and they are more apt to honor the due dates. Ultimately, each student is responsible for transferring the assignments from the group calendar into his or her planner, thereby teaching them the skills necessary for achieving long-range goals. 

IMG_5892 Also included in the folder is a homework tracker (PDF/docx). At the beginning of each group discussion, the “leader” in the group records each student’s progress. The leader role rotates each day, giving each student a turn. If a student does not do his or her reading, they leave the group to catch up on the reading while the group continues the discussion. The student submits a written summary of a minimum of five detailed sentences to make up for their part of the discussion.


Teaching Talking and Listening Skills

There is no doubt that middle school students love to socialize. This is one reason why I like literature circles: it's a learning experience that taps into their social skills. However, learning when to talk and when to listen can be a challenge. If a group is struggling, I give each student in the group two poker chips. The student whose poker chip is in the center of the table speaks; all others listen. (I have used talking sticks, but I teach five sections of English and storing 25 talking sticks became an issue.) The secretary records a summary of the group’s discussion. Each member of the group must sign off on the summary before it's stored in the folder. 


Literature Circle Roles

I teach the different roles, or ways a reader thinks, to all my students. Some roles, such as the leader, illustrator, or summarizer are individualized, and the roles rotate. However, in order to prevent my students from selecting a few vocabulary words or a single quote without actually having to read, all students assume the following roles while reading:

Vocabulary Wizards: All students engage in the vocabulary self-selection (VSS) process with each assignment. The words that are essential to understanding the story are recorded on a VSS bookmark. I print the document front to back and then cut the sheets in half vertically. They identify a synonym or antonym if possible, connecting the new word to prior knowledge. When the students meet, they bring the words to the table. Dictionaries are stored on each group of desks for quick reference.

Words of Wisdom: All students are required to select at least one quote for the “Words of Wisdom” wall. With 110 students, we can’t possibly post every quote, so each group evaluates the collection and selects the one that they want to represent their group on the wall. 

Connectors: The connector's responsibilities are structured differently, depending upon the desired learning outcomes. I require that all students come to the discussion group prepared to take on the connector role. Below are three approaches that I have used to facilitate group discussions:

  1. During the “Children of the Holocaust” unit, the enduring understanding is that characters change as a result of events that occur in the novel. Therefore, students must be able to describe how a character changes using the WALTeR handout, discussed in the "Analyzing Characters With WALTeR" post. Students focus on using relevant information to illustrate their understanding of character development. They must also be able to make connections to their own lives. Limiting the focus to character development prevents my 6th graders from feeling overwhelmed. Of course they can expand their discussions, but they are being assessed on the main focus, character development.
  2. Discussion_cardsWhen the outcomes are not as specific, students have a deck of Literature Circle Discussion Cards. Each group completes at least 15 questions, three per student, from a deck of 28 cards. The cards ensure that they discuss all the important aspects while allowing voice and choice. I create a set for each group, each printed on card stock paper of a different color.
  3. As we become more fluent with literature circles, they have more voice and choice, using the "Literature Circles Reading Connections Guide." The handout lists types of responses for their double-entry journals, which they use in their group discussions.



Group_discussion_checklist When I start literature circles, each group has an agenda to remind them of the tasks that must be completed. Students who finish reading may work on the tasks. As they complete each task, the leader of the group signs off. Here is an example of a group discussion checklist that we used with the "Children of the Holocaust" unit.


Scholastic List Exchange: Literature Circle Books

If you need suggestions of books to use for literature circles, Scholastic List Exchange will help. Check out Children of the Holocaust Literature Circles Booklist (Grades 5–8), War Fiction for Literature Circles (Grades 4–6), Animal Stories for Literature Circles (Grades 4–6), and Multicultural Fiction for Literature Circles (Grades 4–6).


Additional Resources

My experience of literature circles is constantly evolving: I am still learning. If you have any suggestions on managing literature circles, please share them below.

Comments (13)

I am a new teacher. This is nicely laid out and will be a great deal of help with my ELA students. Thank you!

Thank you so much for this informative article! It am moving from 5th grade to 7th and 8th grade ELAR this year, and this will be so helpful. Thank you again.

I've taught Literary Circles before but I'm always looking for new ideas. Thanks for this awesome information! All of it will be very helpful the next time I introduce the lesson to my students.

Hi, Mary-

Thank you so much for this post on literature circles. I implemented them for the first time last year but found the student accountability piece to be challenging. You give some great suggestions though. I am unable to view the links, however. I tried on two computers. I am very curious to see the homework tracker, group discussion checklist, and the VSS bookmark. Thank you!

Hi Mary,
This post was so informative! I'm a first year 6th grade reading teacher, and this helps so much! I had a quick question about resources - do your students get to take the books home, or are they strictly meant for in-class reading? I'd think it would be a logistical nightmare to figure out how many of each book you'd need (especially when that number could change the next year) - how do you do it? Any help you can extend would be greatly appreciated!



Thank you for the kind words. You will learn quickly that the best teachers collaborate and share. Whatever I have you can use. Some day, I may be borrowing from you. ~Good Luck, Mary

Mary, This was amazing! Thanks for sharing this information. I have recently graduated from college and was just hired as a middle school reading teacher. This is the one thing I have always said I wanted to do-literature circles, but was unsure really how to start it all with middle school students, but this article really helped. I am definitly going to look into the resources you mentioned as well. If there is anymore advice you or anyone else can share I would appreciate it!


Hi, Roni, I would love to see your literature circle unit. Is it published yet, or do you have to wait until the peer review before it is published? Will you send me the link? ~ Mary

Hi Mary, Great minds think alike! I just posted my 6th grade lit circle unit on NYLearns. I am waiting for comments on the peer review process. I love the deck of discussion cards. My students peer taught lit circles to three fourth grade classes. I just love reading your blog! Take Care, Roni

Hi, Jason. We live so close, yet so far. With our hectic schedules, I'm glad you took the time to join the blog. I often hear how wonderful South Jeff is from a former colleague of yours, Becky. You may want to read my response to Renea below. She is working on this as well. ~Mary

Hi, Renea,

I think the key is letting them know the specific outcome. For Example, "How does the character change over time?" OR "How doe symbolism add meaning to the plot?" My students knew from day 1 that they were going to have to write an extended response and a character trait project. It provides guidance, which I feel they need. They used a character trait graphic organizer to take notes. Tomorrow, I am giving them an index card to fill in before the extended response: title, author, main characters' names (spelled correctly), setting, main conflict, etc. They can bring the index card and graphic organizer to class to write the extended response. ~Mary

Hi, I really like the way you have your Lit. Circles set up. My problem is, I have 55 minutes per day with 4 classes. We have unsupervised lit. circles every morning for 30 minutes while teachers do intervention on at risk students. I set up the Lit. Circles at the first of the year, but I'm not feeling successful. Any suggestions?

Great information! I am like you in that I hate giving up control. I will try many of these ideas! It was amazing seeing someone from Northern NY on Scholastic! (I'm from South Jeff!)

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