Planning to launch a literature circles experience requires teachers to begin with the end in mind. Considering what we want kids to know and be able to do at the end of the journey is a good place to begin, and rather than focusing on teaching specific books or titles, attending to identified skills and essential questions lends meaning and purpose to the work that will be done.

Students should be reading books that are appropriate for their developmental level and engaging for them. The skills that they are provided support around can be identified through formative assessment practices or guided by other data. Allowing groups to choose their titles ensures greater success, and framing the unit around powerful essential questions provides opportunities for full class discussion around issues and ideas that connect to all titles.

For example, through formative assessment practice, a teacher may have uncovered the fact that her students struggle with the concept of characterization, the process of identifying plot structure, and the ability to infer. In this case, students could form literature circles around ANY piece of fiction that allows for instruction and guided practice relevant to these needs.

Teachers that struggle with limited resources often enjoy the flexibility that literature circles provide. Smaller numbers of books are needed (typically 4-6 per circle), and it is much easier to gain access to titles in batches of this size than it is to order class sets of books. Often, children will bring in their own copies, libraries have titles on hand, or teachers loan each other titles from their own bookshelves.

Essential questions can be crafted relevant to all of the titles chosen, and as each unique group goes about the business of reading, exploring, and discussing their chosen books, the entire class can also be brought together to share how what they have read has shaped their thinking around each essential question. Performance tasks, research work, and writing pieces can capture reflections along the way and the conclusions that are formed in the end.

One of my favorite literature circle units challenged students to consider a number of essential questions. Here are a few of them:

1. How does intolerance effect the world we live in?

2. What is the relationship between fear and intolerance?

3. Should intolerance be tolerated?

Students were permitted to choose from a number of different titles as their literature circles began to form. Some chose Cisnero’s House on Mango Street, others read The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, and another group chose All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein (check out this blog by the way). Some groups read anthologies of short stories, and if I were in the classroom now, I would definitely invite an exploration of various blog posts and other web resources.

As circles took off, I found that  mini-lessons relevant to inference, character and plot structure were much more effective. Kids were grounding their practice in texts that they were passionate about. Texts that they chose. Texts that they could read. Group discussions were dynamic and our conversations as a class were richer, as they were informed by a variety of texts and the different perspectives gleaned from them.

An added bonus? Kids were more willing to participate in full class discussions, because the safety of their small group exchanges prepared them for doing so. As students are working, teachers are better able to position themselves as guides and coaches. Independence begins to blossom. Confidence grows from there.

If you’ve used Literature Circles in your classroom, please share the ways in which you used essential questions, provided for choice, or dealt with the reality of limited resources. These experiences are merely my own. I’m eager to learn what others have done as well.

This post is the second in a series on Literature Circles. Stop back tomorrow. I’ll be sharing strategies for engaging all students in the work of literature circles and discussing ways to cultivate positive interdependence between group members.



  1. I don’t have an experience to share, but a question. Besides the packets (for a teacher startting lit circles for the first time), is there other writing going on? Is there a longer writing assignment worked into this?

  2. Being new to Literature Circles, the remarks on the essential question were enlightening for me. I like giving the freedom to choose from the preselected books but yet the essence of the single essential question is still the underlying common goal for all student readings. You come together on that one point and it can enhance overall classroom discussion on that single topic as well as the within the Literature Circles promoting that higher level thinking we all strive to unravel.

  3. One of the things I tried this year was to give students the synopsis of the books I use in my literature circles. I talked about each book for about 1-2 minutes, giving details of the plot of the story, without giving away too much. When I was done, I had the students rate which books they were most interested in from 1-5. I told them that I wanted their input this year, rather than assigning the novels to each group. I told them that I couldn’t guarantee the book they had as their #1 would be the one they were assigned, but that I would take all of their ratings into account when I finally decided on the groups. I think the lowest I went on any student was the her third choice. 90% of the students will be reading their first or second choice novels. One of the interesting things about these books, however, is that although each novel presents a different plot and different characters, each story relates to a central internal conflict: interdependece vs. independence. Symbolic, perhaps, that these are two of the biggest traits that each student needs to embody when they begin the literature circle unit.

  4. Michelle Carlson Reply

    Angela, I’d love to know what short stories your students were reading in connection to the intolerance theme. Joe, what books did you offer for the dependent v. independent theme? Thanks!

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