When I was a child growing up in the 70s and 80s on a farm in California, the arrival of the bookmobile was an event that made me jump up and down with excitement. We had no television, radio and needless to say, no computer at that time. The bookmobile would stop at our remote house and allow my brother and I to check out around 20 books for a month!

As a child, reading was not easy.  For me Bs, Ds, and Ps were all but identical. Reading WAS and SAW was impossible and I just had to guess randomly most of the time. I can remember coming home from school crying more than once because I couldn’t do what my peers could do. Reading was a big thing at my house though, and it was the primary form of entertainment so I couldn’t really give up, I had to keep trying. Little by little it became easier until it was an integral part of my life, something that today I can’t imagine living without. The only reason I became a fluent reader was that I spent a lot of time doing it and I was encouraged to do it for fun. I loved stories and as soon as the pain of learning how turn symbols into meaning in my head began to subside, the joy of entering different worlds took over. It was the pleasure I got from reading that ultimately kept me going.

When I was little my parents used to read to me but once I could do it on my own, reading was mostly a solitary activity. My family would sit in our living room every evening reading together but each person had his or her own book and even though we sometimes talked about what we were reading, we were reading alone. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to join book clubs and discover how wonderful it is to read as a group. I have been a part of several great book clubs but one of the things they have often lacked is roles. We all read the same book and then discuss the ideas that come to mind after we finish the book but many times the conversation petered out fairly quickly because our conversations lacked focus.

My First Experience Teaching Reading Circles

Several years ago I was teaching eleventh graders at an international school in Brooklyn. The students came from all over the world and were all new to the United States and learning English. Most of them were not crazy about reading. In their English classes the usual way of reading a book was that the teacher sat in front of the class reading the book while all of the students followed along in their books. After a few pages he would stop reading and one of the students would start and the pattern would repeat. It was almost always the same 4 or 5 students that volunteered to read. I was assisting the teacher in this class several times a week so I had the opportunity to really observe what was happening. The teacher was a gifted reader so while he was reading, everyone’s attention was riveted on the story. When students were reading the attention was less riveted but out of respect for the teacher and the class, students were very well behaved. I noticed however that most of the students who never volunteered to read were not actually following the text with their eyes. Their heads were bent over their books and when the reader turned the page, they turned the page too but they were just listening, not reading. Sometimes they were not even listening, they appeared to be listening but when I asked them simple questions about the story they apologized and said that they were thinking about something else.

I was teaching a parallel course at the time so we talked about how to fix this problem and hit upon reading circles. We spent a couple of months reading books to make sure they had a thread running through them (we chose the thread teenage protagonists), were different enough to provide a true choice, spanned a range of levels and were interesting enough to spur meaningful discussions. We then prepared role sheets for the students and an introductory class session in which they could choose their books. We were both really nervous about starting the reading circles because neither of us had ever done one before or even seen one done by others. The weekend before the launch in fact, he called me wanting to call the whole thing off. After putting in all of that work I wanted to try it out though, so I said that we should give it two weeks and if it wasn’t working we could abandon it and go back to the old system. He agreed and we were on our way the next Monday.

Steps to Take Before you Introduce Reading Circles to your Class

1. Choose a theme
You don’t have to do this of course, you could choose one book and have everyone read it, but I like for students to have one overarching theme with many different ways to look at it. That way students can work in groups who have all read the same book and discuss themes they find there. They can also work in groups with members who have all read different books and explore the overarching theme from different perspectives. I try to choose books that will touch my students in some way, something relevant to their lives and their experiences. Some of the themes I like are:

* Always read the books you will be offering to make sure they are appropriate for the level and age of the students you are teaching.

2. Order the books or figure out how your students can get them on-line.

3. Create Role Sheets:
You should have enough roles so that every person in the group has a different one. I like to make a few extra so that even the last student in the group to choose has a choice. That means if I have groups of 4 I try to make 6 roles. I don’t introduce them all at once though, in the beginning I give less roles and ask student to practice doing them in class with short stories. (groups of four seems to be the perfect number, less than that and it is problematic if a student is absent, more than that, students tend to lose focus). Of course not all of our classes are divisible by four so some groups will have 3 or 5 members.

How to Introduce the Books to Your Students

1. I introduce the students to the books

Give them a short description of each book (you can use the book descriptions on the back cover of each book for this or you can write your own). I also include a rating for each book from the easiest to the most difficult. By including this information students can choose a book that is appropriate for them. The purposes of reading circles are to build reading fluency and a love of reading, that means if the book is too difficult, neither fluency nor love will be accomplished. It is better to choose a book that is slightly too easy than one that is way too difficult.

This post by Musings from a Middle School describes a really cool way to introduce books called a book tasting.  Next time I do reading circles I am definitely going to try this!

2. Students Choose their Book

Once the students have had a chance to read the descriptions, I give them a slip of paper with all of the books on it and ask them to choose their top 3. I don’t give them a chance to talk it over with their friends because I really want them to choose based on interest and level, not who they want to work with.

I then group the students according to the book they chose. I was a little worried about this to be honest because in the past I had always tried to group students with a mix of language abilities. I usually put a high level student in each group with the belief that he/she would help the others understand the text. I could not have been more wrong. When students were allowed to be in reading groups of similar levels, all of them excelled. The groups that had the most trouble reading were the groups that benefited the most because they felt empowered rather than intimidated.

I allowed each group to choose how they wanted to read. They could take turns reading aloud to each other, or they could read in pairs or they could just take their books somewhere and read alone. The highest level readers chose to do just that, they all went off by themselves and read silently. These were the students that usually volunteered to read in the old system because they were the strongest readers. The lower level groups however, the ones who never read aloud in class, chose to read aloud to each other in a whole group. They were all at more or less the same level so none of them felt scared to make mistakes. They laughed together, they asked each other questions about vocabulary, pronunciation and comprehension and for the first time, they were really engaged in the book. The middle level groups ran the gamut; some read alone, others paired off and some groups chose to stick together.

3. The next day, students find out what groups they will be in and get their books.
The first thing they have to do is figure out how many pages they have to read every day and make a plan. I usually give them around 3 weeks to read a book. That means if their book is 150 pages they have to read 50 pages a week or around 10 pages a day. Then they need to discuss how they would like to read. I also ask them to discuss why they chose that book,  and predict how it will end. At this point I give them just enough roles so that everyone in the group has a different role. I give them the most basic roles to start out with and I give them about 20 minutes to start reading.

What a Typical Day of Reading Circles Looks Like

1. The first 15 to 20 minutes of class is discussion time. Groups get together to discuss the previous day’s reading. Each student brings in their role sheet and leads that part of the discussion. Then they decide who is going to do which role for the next day. My only requirements are that they not do the same role two days in a row and every member of the group must have a different role. As a teacher, I walk around and listen to different groups. Sometimes I chime in with questions or short comments but I try not to talk to much, I just listen mostly. It is fascinating to hear what students have to say about their readings and to see how they interact with each other and the text.

2. The next 30 minutes of class are devoted to reading. At this point, there is not much for me to do. I just kind of make sure that students are reading and answer any questions they might have. I remember wandering out into the hallway sometimes (I let the silent readers go out to the hall if they wanted a more quiet atmosphere) where I would meet my colleague who was doing the same thing. We would talk about how we felt a bit useless at this point because the students were doing all of the reading. This was true and wonderful because it meant that instead of us doing the work, the students were doing it and they were getting much more out of it.

3. Last 10 minutes of class I asked my students to get back into their groups, touch base on what they had been reading and clarify how much they had to do for homework. Usually students had not quite finished their reading by the time class was over so they had to take some home and they had to do their role sheet still.

4. Repeat the next day.

*  The class I was teaching at that point was a high school English class in which the main objective was to get the students to read and understand what they were reading. In university classes I have a lot more objectives so generally students do all of the reading outside of class and we spend class time working on other things.

The Grand Finale!  What to do When the Books are Done

This is the really fun part!  Once the books are done, each group puts together a final presentation.  I am a huge advocate of choice so I always give them several different ideas for what they could do.  

  • Make a video about the book
  • Create a mural showing setting, characters, quotes, and symbols
  • Make a Book Booth

I create each option in such a way that the group has to work together but each individual has distinct responsibilities.  Their grades are based on their individual contributions as well as the whole presentation.  

My colleague and I got our classes together for one big presentation of their final projects.  The groups that made videos introduced them to the rest of us and we all watched.  The groups that made booths and murals stood near their work while the rest of us went around and they presented their books to us. We invited the principal and everyone else who was not teaching that period to come join us.  The students were so proud of their work and did a wonderful job presenting it.  

How to Evaluate Students

Their grade for the book was broken down into 3 parts.  
1. Role Sheets:

  • Every day I checked that each student had completed their role sheet before coming to class.  
  • At the end of every week, I collected the role sheets and evaluated them based on how well they had fulfilled the requirements for that role.
  • At the end of the book, I collected all of the role sheets for each student and evaluated their work as a whole looking for improvement over the course of the book.

2. Final Project

  • How well the student supported his/her group
  • Individual contribution to the final project

3. Final Essay

  • ​I assign an essay in which students explore the overarching theme of all of the books using both their book and what they learned about the other books from participating in the final project exhibition.  

I hope you have as much fun preparing and administering reading circles as I have!  If you have any questions please ask in the comments box.  Have you done reading circles in your classes?  If you have, how did they go?  I would love to hear about your experiences!!

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