Background of Literature Circles

Literature circles were first implemented in 1982 by Karen Smith, an elementary school teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. Handed a box of odd-and-end novels by a fellow teacher, Karen took them and promptly forgot about them. Later that year, some of her fifth grade students expressed an interest in reading them, organized themselves loosely into groups, and started to discuss the novels. Smith was surprised at the degree of their engagement with the books and the complexity of their discussions, as they had had no outside help or instruction from their teacher (Daniels, 1994). From these humble beginnings, literature circles have evolved into what they are today: reading, study and discussion groups based around different groupings of students reading a variety of different novels. They differ from traditional English instruction where students in classroom all read one “core” novel, often looking to the teacher for the answers and the meaning/literary analysis of the text. They highlight discussion, student response, free choice, and collaboration, "providing a way for students to engage in critical thinking and reflection" (Literature Circles Resource Center Schlick Noe, 2004). Well-run Literature Circles highlight student choice; occur over an extended period of time as part of a Balanced Literacy program; involve numerous structured and unstructured opportunities for student response and interpretation; and incorporate assessment and evaluation that includes self-assessment and numerous extension projects. Research on literature circles is conducted primarily by Harvey Daniels (1994, 2002, 2004), Katherine L. Schlick Noe (1995, 1999, 2001, 2003), Bonnie Campbell Hill (1995, 2001, 2003), and Nancy J. Johnson (1995, 1999, 2001); these individuals are credited with most of the research and teacher resources around this pedagogical approach to student choice and reading; however, numerous other researchers, including Kathy Short and Kathryn Mitchell Pierce (1990), Jerome Harste, Kathy Short and Carolyn Burke (1988), Katherine Samway (1991), Suzi Keegan and Karen Shrake (1991) also have conducted research and classroom-based studies on Literature Circles. This approach to reading and learning looks to some of the best practices and theory from Collaborative learning and Scaffolding Theory. As well, Reader-Response Criticism, Independent reading, and Student-centered learning also comprise most of the theoretical underpinning of literature circles.

Literature circles combine the best practices of collaborative learning and student-directed learning. They are not to be confused with book clubs, currently popular in some circles. While both book clubs and literature circles focus on discussion of books in small group settings, book clubs have a more loosely-structured agenda for discussions and are not usually tied into literary analysis such as thematic or symbolic analysis. Furthermore, literature circles are the domain of the classroom, both at the elementary and secondary level, and involve various types of assessment (including self-assessment, observations and conferences) and evaluation (portfolios, projects and student artifacts) by both the teacher and the student. literature circles are a pedagogically sound alternative to teacher-centered discourse. They can be used at all grade levels (elementary through secondary) and ability levels, and are often credited with instilling a love of reading and disussion with students. Furthermore, current research indicates that peer collaboration has a positive effect on student learning and performance in Language Arts (Fall et al., 2000), increases student learning, and also improves reading comprehension and content-knowledge