Literature Circles Help Develop Language and Collaboration

Literature circles look different in every classroom. Image source: Beneylu
Literature circles look different in every classroom. Image source: Beneylu
Masum Billah
Written by Masum Billah

A literature circle is an activity in which members meet to discuss and respond to a book that they are all reading (Daniels 2002). As Cameron et al (2012) explain, literature circles are led mostly by students, while the teacher remains in the background and performs only basic control functions. Literature Circles in EFL are teacher accompanied classroom discussion groups among English as foreign language learners, who regularly get together in class to speak about and share their ideas, and comment on others’ interpretations about the previously determined section of a graded reader in English, using their ‘role-sheets’ and ‘student journals’ in collaboration with each other.

So, the term ‘literature circles’ in the EFL classroom refers to; small groups of students reading the same piece of literature to accomplish different tasks like preparing questions, reporting challenging vocabulary, finding cultural items, determining the well-written parts or making connections with the contemporary society. The members of the groups later come together in the classroom to have a discussion under the supervision of their English teacher on the piece of literature they covered. The idea of ‘Literature Circles in EFL’ initially came from the adult ‘book clubs’ defined as a group of people who meet regularly to discuss the specific book they have read and share their opinions, likes or dislikes about it.

So, it is seen that in literature circles, small groups of students gather together to discuss a piece of literature in depth. The discussion is guided by students’ response to what they have read. Students may talk about events and characters in the book, the author’s craft, or personal experiences related to the story. Literature circles provide a way for students to engage in critical thinking and reflection as they read, discuss, and respond to books. Collaboration is at the heart of this approach. Students reshape and add onto their understanding as they construct meaning with other readers. Literature circles guide students to deeper understanding of what they read through structured discussion and extended written and artistic response. This concept works like a Book Club, in which people meet to discuss the book they have read, reflect on the themes, characters or plot, analyze them, and give their opinion based on their personal experiences (Harvey & Goudvis, 2000). Teachers and educators may use this activity to promote comprehension, as well as vocabulary skills. Literature circles may also benefit students who lack confidence in their reading skills as they allow them to have peer support to comprehend the material read.

When literary circles go on the teacher or the participating students can choose a leader who brings the group together and checks to make sure all of the books and materials are available. The group leader begins the discussion and makes sure others take turns getting involved. He/she may decide the duration of the discussion. A supporter offers supportive comments to those who speak, and wrap up the discussion.

Literature circles positively impact students’ learning processes and language development. Much of this impact is directed towards several important areas for language learning. Most important of all the benefits, literature circles help students develop comprehension skills that are essential when reading a text. Literature circles support strategies such as visualizing, connecting, questions, inferring and analyzing that are all vital to solid comprehension and lively conversation (Daniel and Steineke 2004). Literature circles help to provide a safe classroom environment where students can build confidence and feel enabled to take risks while interacting in their second language (Burns 1998, Larson 2008). Learners may feel more comfortable working with their peers than being constantly monitored or corrected by the teacher and may be more willing to share their viewpoints without feeling anxious about making mistakes.

Student choice and social interaction easily integrate into literature circles, which support student motivation and can have a very powerful effect on achievement (Burner 2007). Researchers have also found that when students work in collaborative groups they encourage each other’s efforts and that this leads to increased motivation and effort (Daniels 2002, Chi 2008, Williams 2009). When students learn a second language, collaborative discussions with peers often play a vital role in reinforcing comprehension skills (Egbert 2007; Ketch 2005) because the active involvement that takes place entails speaking and listening to many different perspectives, which deepens second language learners’ understandings (Schlick Noe and Johnson 1999).

Research has found that the target language is learned more effectively when second language learners have a variety of opportunities to practice real communication (Krashen 1981), working in literature groups provides students with opportunities for social interaction and communication about issues important to them (Echevarria, Vogt, and Short 2008, Nagy and Townsend 2012). During the meaningful oral discussions that occur in literature circles, learners have more opportunities to practice oral skills, which eventually may help to develop their oral proficiency (Souvenir 1997).

Scaffolding is the support given to students during the learning process so that they can cope with the learning task (Sawyer 2006). This scaffolding shapes students’ attitudes, helping them realize that their reading challenges are solvable and increases their interest and involvement in the given activity. Reading interactions may have positive effects on writing skills in general; they may also support greater participation and involvement as students share and shape their opinions on paper. Teachers can assign engaging and challenging group- writing activities that stimulate students’ critical thinking, such as choosing a different ending to a short story critique, or addressing writing prompts that reflect knowledge of what they have read (Webb et al.1998).

Literature circles can provide an exciting way to promote student engagement in extensive reading by means of cooperative learning and collaborative work. It prompts student-to-student interactions and classroom discourse taking place during literature circles discussions. Students experience a different atmosphere of practising language and can improve their interaction skills in English.

Fiction literature has a treasure of themes that relate more to our everyday lives. All this goes against what most English language learners and many English teachers as well believe: poems, short stories, and plays do not have a major role in classrooms aimed at developing communicative competence in English. Most English learners think that studying literature is definitely not the right way to develop either language skills or interest in literature. When these themes are dealt with in literature circles, students can have real benefits to develop their language.

Literature circles look different in every classroom; they change from teacher to teacher, grade to grade, student to student.  Literature circles have no recipe, they are not a specific “program”, and they never look the same from year to year — or even from day today. True engagement with literature within a community of learners can’t possibly be prescribed — it can only be described. Literature circles can be effective ways for educators to assess abilities and meet the needs of students while giving them more responsibility and active roles to play in their education. A key aim of such circles is to help teachers assess students’ comprehension through their responses to literature. Pupils develop the ability to discuss, define and explore a text, and they learn to make predictions using prior knowledge or supporting details from it. The circles encourage students to identify unfamiliar words, ask relevant and focused questions and clarify their understanding while teachers gauge students’ comprehension based on their contributions to the discussion.

The aim is to build comprehension skills using a motivating and engaging method. It is also an excellent way to build vocabulary and help students develop strong listening and verbal skills. This strategy provides a venue for students to have fun sharing their experiences. These discussions help students re-frame their thinking and increase their understanding through constructive exchanges as a single group. This interaction can also further students’ understanding of subject matter through facilitated discussion, which increases their potential for improved written and artistic responses. As an added result, students develop a love of reading and additional skills and strategies found among good readers.

Working in groups provides English Language Learners with an opportunity to reflect and relate elements from the reading back to their personal experiences. ELLs may also benefit from interactive oral discussions, which allow them to gain a deeper level of understanding about the subject. Once second language learners have had an opportunity to listen to their peers discuss the book, they can begin to build knowledge and develop higher-order thinking skills. Cooperative learning is an important component in literature circles, and this model is most beneficial to ELLs as they begin to participate and expand their vocabulary. Students begin to become active learners as they receive support from their peers and learn English as their second language (Bottini & Grossman, 2005). Although this teaching strategy takes a bit of strategic planning, patience and practice, once the students are in the habit of working in this way, the opportunity to offer differentiated instruction can increase dramatically, thereby allowing teachers to reach a greater number of children.


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About the author

Masum Billah

Masum Billah

Masum Billah works as a Program Manager in BRAC Education Program, BRAC, and Vice-President of Bangladesh English Language Teachers’ Association (BELTA), Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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