Literature Circles have come a long way since they became popular in the ‘80’s! Through proper planning, modeling, and student collaboration teachers can take literature circles to a whole new level.  

In the past,

Students would read and discuss a common book, using role sheets for guidance. Each student in the group would have a different role such as Discussion Director or  Word Wizard, etc.

The role sheets guided the students in their reading. Unfortunately, the students often got too focused on completing the sheets and spent less time on really putting thought into their group discussions.



Teachers have widened the boundaries of literature circles with the variety of texts used and the responsibilities that accompany them.

The texts being used for the discussions can be anything from chapter books, non-fiction articles, cartoons, poems, shorter texts to even graphs, images or charts.

In my resource library, I keep the updated version of Comprehension and Collaboration: Inquiry Circles for Curiosity, Engagement, and Understanding by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels, revised 2015. Harvey and Daniels have filled this book with suggestions and expertise on how students can and should work together to get the most out of collaborating in small groups. This book has so much more useful, in-depth information than what I have shared in this post.

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Harvey and Daniels have packed this updated version with so many phenomenal resources such as lesson links, 40 mini-lessons for comprehension, collaboration and inquiry. As a bonus, you can find companion resources on the Heinemann website.

In addition, Fisher, Frey, and Hattie clarify their research in Visible Learning for Literacy, 2016.




According to Fisher, Frey and Hattie, cooperative learning (literature circles) has a high impact on learning. This is according to it’s ranking on the “Barometer of Influence”. (John Hattie, 2009 and 2012).

For additional support, the Corwin Press website provides links to videos and graphic organizers.

When students are in literature circles, they are given the opportunity to “clarify their collective thinking.” This clarification occurs when the discussions have a structure to them. All participants have a vested interest in the outcomes.

” Every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design.” 

                                  -Fisher, Frey and Hattie, 2016

When it comes to literature circles, a ‘teacher by design‘ will provide students with the direction, modeling and structure to engage students in meaningful conversations about text. Text should be connected to an essential question and/or a performance task. Each individual student will complete the performance task at the end of the reading and the discussion of the text.


What do I do to prepare my students for valuable book discussions?


Student Participation + Intrinsic Motivation = Student Engagement


For many students, adding to a conversation in front of peers is not natural.

The goal is to get students engaged through their conversations, so that they will transfer what they have learned to additional learning.

BDP-Backward Design Plan-template

FREE Backward Design Plan Template

A backward design plan (⇐FREE printable) is a great place to start. The template I have created includes 4 parts:

  • End Result 
    • start with your expectation of the end result in mind
    • create your Essential Question
    • list the standards you will teach 
  • Assessment
    • embedded assessments throughout your lesson
    • a performance task
    • questions that you want students to answer
  • Plan
    • learning activities
    • strategies you will teach
    • sequence of lesson
    • resources needed for the lesson
    • teacher role vs. student role
  • Reflect 
    • soon after the lesson is over, think back to how it went
    • use this information to plan forward


How do you prepare students to work together?

Just like when they were toddlers on the playground, kids need to be taught how to encourage each other in a group discussion. Modeling and practicing together ahead of time will make a difference when students are asked to meet in groups and discuss on their own. When it comes to the ins and outs of accountable talk, I recommend Teacher Talk by Kara Pranikoff. From her teaching experiences in New York City schools, she shares concrete examples of developing student talk.

I was lucky enough to see Kara Pranikoff present at ILA 2017 about her book.

Pranikoff provides practical ways to get students to think and talk in group conversations. She suggests beginning with images to model and practice student thinking.

Students of all backgrounds and reading levels would be able to participate in conversations about images.

By varying the types of settings, students can get their voices heard in some way during the literacy circles. I like to provide them with time to record their own thoughts on sticky notes and in their journals in preparation for discussions. I also provide partner turn-and-talk time, small group discussion time and whole group discussion time.

Student Collaboration

How do you teach students to cooperate and encourage each other to share thoughts with each other?

Frequently, the small group time is so important. Learning how to communicate and cooperate in a small group now will pay-off long after they leave your classroom.

Recently, I had a conversation with my husband about how his company depends on decisions made in small-group meetings.

Students need to develop the skills to work cooperatively in a small group now.

  • Students need varying amounts of support from the teacher at different times in the learning process.  The Gradual Release of Responsibility (Regie Routman, 2008) is a way to frame it.

Gradual Release of Responsibility

Build stamina over time by lengthening the texts as the year progresses.

  • Allowing students to choose books that are on topics of interest provides intrinsic motivation. (I pay closer attention to stories that I am interested in versus a text that I have no connection with to peak my interest.)
  • Promote longer discussions to dive deeper into important events in the texts. Periodically, have students refer back to the essential question that was posed at the onset of the lesson.

By and large, Literature Circles are so much more than teachers providing group members with role sheets. Student thinking and discussions will deepen through proper planning, modeling and student collaboration.

Please comment about your experiences with Literature Circles.