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    Since I first posted the Literature Circles page on mrcoley.com, several teachers have e-mailed me with questions about how I run Lit. Circles in my classroom.  I always love hearing from fellow teachers and enjoy sharing any information I have that others may find helpful.  After receiving many similar questions, it dawned on me that compiling a list of frequently asked questions regarding Literature Circles would be a good way to share information.  So, here's a list of the most common questions I've been asked about Literature Circles, followed by my answers.  Please understand that I don't consider my answers to these questions to be "right" or the only way to run a Literature Circles program.  My goal is simply to share with others what I have found to work well in my own classroom.  If you have a question you don't see listed on this page, please feel free to ask me by clicking here.  I hope you find this page helpful!

How do you group students?
I group my students homogeneously.  I am fortunate at my school to have access to the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI), a fantastic reading assessment that quickly and easily measures students' reading comprehension.  Using SRI scores, called Lexiles, as well as other classroom assessments as a guide, I place students in groups with readers at similar reading levels.  I also try, whenever possible, to create boys- and girls-only groups.  I don't do this throughout the curriculum, but over the years I've found that students tend to open up more in their book-based discussions when they are surrounded by others of the same gender.

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Do students stay in the same groups all year?
Not necessarily.  The goal of Literature Circles is to match readers to appropriately leveled text, so it makes sense that if a student shows dramatic improvement in his/her reading abilities, it is necessary to move him/her to a higher-level group.   That being said, I have found that over the course of a school year, everybody improves, not just one or two students.  As one student develops, so do the rest.  In short, most groups grow together, making it possible to keep them intact.  Of course, if a student is developing his/her skills at a much faster rate than the rest of the group, a change is necessary.

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Do students select their own books or do you assign them?
Although I approve their selections to ensure that the books are at an appropriate reading level, groups choose their own books.  When students are first introduced to the Literature Circles program, they are given a list of all the books available (click here to see the list).  Next to each title on the list is the book's Lexile level.  By comparing a book's level to the Lexile levels of the students in the group, students can quickly and easily find an appropriate selection. 

It's important to note that when making book selections, the books' Lexile levels are used as a guideline, not a rigid rule.  I do occasionally recommend books for my students that don't exactly "match" in terms of the students' and books' Lexile levels.  I have encountered books whose assigned Lexiles, when compared to my experience with the books, don't seem quite accurate.  For example, Mr. Popper's Penguins has a Lexile of 910, putting it at a high 5th grade level.  I have found, however, this book to be perfect for some of my struggling 5th grade readers.  In fact, when I taught 4th grade, I used this book as a core novel for my entire class.  I guess what I'm trying to say is, if your experience leads you to believe a book may be a good match for your students, despite the lack of an apparent match between the Lexile level of the book and students, don't be afraid to give it a try.  The students will know within a chapter or two if the book is too hard or too easy.

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How long does it take for a group to finish a book?
It depends on the group and on the book being read.  A shorter book may be finished by a high-level group in only a week or two, or a longer book may require a month by students reading at a slower pace.

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How are "jobs" assigned?
Each student has what we call a "job wheel."  To create the job wheel, I first give students a circular piece of paper divided into pie-like sections, each section containing the name of a Lit. Circle job (here are the uncut job wheels I use for 4-person and 5-person groups).  This piece of paper is then attached to a small square piece of construction paper by pushing a small brass brad through the center of both sheets of paper.  By drawing an arrow at the top of the construction paper and rotating the wheel, students are able to determine, on their own, what jobs they are responsible to complete.  Students keep track of their jobs, reading assignments, and due dates on a Literature Circles Assignment Sheet.

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How do you grade students' jobs?
In my classroom, each job is worth 5 points.  When grading jobs, I look for three things:  completeness, effort, and accuracy.  First, I check to make sure the job has been completed in its entirety, including all of the appropriate headings (e.g. book title, pages/chapters read).  Jobs with incomplete headings are automatically docked one point, and incomplete jobs are marked down and must be redone.  I then check to make sure the job was completed accurately.  For example, did the Discussion Director write high-level questions (not just yes/no questions)?  Did the Word Finder correctly define the words he/she looked up?  Lastly, I look for effort.  It is very evident when a student has put forth good effort on a Literature Circles assignment, just as it is very evident when he/she has not.  I consistently stress to my students that if they work hard and do their best, improvement (and typically a good grade) is bound to follow.

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How often do you meet with your Literature Circles?
My students meet in their Literature Circle groups once a week, typically on Fridays.  The other four days of reading instruction are spent in our district-adopted reading series and/or a core novel unit.  In past years, I've had students meet twice a week (on Tuesdays and Fridays), but I've found once a week more to my liking for two reasons.  First, it allows me to devote more time to our reading series, and second, since there is more time between meetings, students are able to read larger portions of their books, thus enabling them to have deeper discussions when they meet in their groups.

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Where did you get your Literature Circles books?
I have been fortunate enough to build my Literature Circles library almost entirely by using bonus points from book clubs like Scholastic.  Beginning in about my third year of teaching, I began putting all of my bonus points toward new Lit. Circles books.  By adding two or three new sets of books each time I place a student order, I've been able to build a pretty substantial collection.  Click here to see my list of available books.

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How do you find Lexile levels for your literature circles books?
Lexile.com has a fantastic database of over 100,000 books from more than 450 publishers.  Each time I get a new book, I search the database using its book search feature to find the book's Lexile level.

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In what grade levels can you run Literature Circles?
I have run Literature Circles in both my 4th and 5th grade classrooms and know of teachers who have run them in higher grade levels.  3rd graders may not be ready for the freedom and responsibility that come with a full-blown Literature Circles program, so I would recommend a modified program with more teacher involvement at this grade level.  When I taught 4th grade, I used to wait until around January to begin the program.  Since student responsibility is imperative for the program to run successfully, I always waited until we got a little deeper into the school year.  This gave students more time to strengthen their independence and responsibility before we got started.  Now that I teach 5th grade, I typically introduce the program in October.

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How do you monitor groups?
During each session, I typically move throughout the classroom, spending a little time with each group.  I'll sit down and listen to the discussion and sharing that's taking place, make sure the group is on task, and then move on to another group.  I also make it a point several times a year to spend sessions with each group from start to finish.  This enables me to see group dynamics for a complete session and not just during a random five-minute block of time.

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Are Literature Circles effective?
I have found them to be extremely effective.  My students' comprehension and vocabulary scores have consistently risen as a result of the program.  But what thrills me more than improved test scores is the fact that Literature Circles make my students excited about reading.  They look forward to their group meetings each week, and are always disappointed when something like an assembly forces the rescheduling of a Literature Circles session.  Here's some research on the effectiveness of Lit. Circles.

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Can I use your job sheets with my own students?
Please feel free to download and use my job sheets and other handouts with your students.  If you have a classroom website and decide to post the sheets on your site for your students to download, please include a link back to the Literature Circles page of my site.

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Any tips for getting started?
Make sure you take the time to thoroughly train your students on exactly how you want your program run.  Before I even split my class into groups, I typically spend two or three weeks on things like:

  • introducing the concept of Literature Circles.  Here's the PowerPoint presentation I use to help introduce the program to my students.

  • discussing the qualities students must display in order for Literature Circles to be effective.

  • going over Bloom's six levels of questioning, highlighting the need to use higher-level questions during group discussions.

  • discussing and modeling each job.  Here's a "Things to Look For" chart detailing the requirements for each job.

  • introducing job wheels and assignment sheets.

  • modeling the procedures of a Literature Circles session (what you do first, second, etc.).

Also, I highly recommend being strict with your expectations early on so that bad habits don't develop (I'm speaking from experience here).  In terms of jobs, I've found that when I've accepted less than a student's best effort in the beginning, I was more likely to continue to receive work that didn't always reflect what the student was capable of producing.

Finally, Literature Circles only work when everyone comes to the group prepared.  A group can't have a discussion if the Discussion Director doesn't do his/her job.  Students must be responsible for the program to work.  Comments like "I didn't do my job" or "I left my job at home" can doom a Lit. Circles session.  I have, in the past, had problems with students not completing jobs on time.  I've found that the best way to ensure that students complete their jobs on time is to make the penalty for not doing their jobs severe.  In my class, students know that if they don't complete their assigned job, they must then complete all five jobs during recess and lunch.  Simple "benching" during a recess has not, for me personally, proven to be enough of a deterrent.  I tell my class, "Take the time to do one job well, so you don't have to spend a lot more time doing all five."  Strict?  You bet.  But you know what?  It works.  Plus, I let my students know that if they don't do their jobs, they aren't only letting me and themselves down, they are letting their group mates down as well.

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