When we invite students into literature circles, we commit to teaching processes and skills rather than hyperfocusing on the surface features of any one title. Literature circle work provides teachers the opportunity to discover and leverage so much about their individual students and the strengths that they bring to the table. There is space to discover how we can help kids grow as learners too. This happens through effective formative assessment practices.

Formative assessment is often confused with testing, and understanding the difference is important. A test (noun) is a measurement of mastery. We test students to see if they know what we need them to know, and grades are assigned to reflect performance.  Formative assessment (verb) is something that happens in the midst of instruction, often during that phase we call guided practice. It’s a process that helps us define how we can serve our students better, so that they are successful not only on our tests, but in their lives. 

When we formatively assess in a variety of ways, reflect on what our assessments might be showing us, and change our instruction to support our students well, they tend to perform better on our tests. Our response to what we discover must be immediate, specific to individual need, and low-stakes in nature. Good formative assessment practice helps teachers and students feel increasingly confident about the work that they do and their abilities to attend to the needs that are uncovered. Waiting until the end of a literature circle experience to test kids on what they’ve learned doesn’t help inform our practice, improve and align our instruction around their needs, or allow students to become more successful. It merely generates a grade.

Teachers who begin by defining what they want their students to know and be able to do by the end of their literature circle unit are better able to define how they might support students best right from the start. Most teachers agree that they aren’t merely concerned with making sure that their students read and comprehend the basics of the text in front of them. Critical thinking, powerful discourse, and cooperative learning skills all play a role in each group’s success, and teachers who expect to see growth in these areas often teach and assess around them. They determine where students struggle not only as readers and writers, but as thinkers, speakers, and members of a community. Instruction is provided around those skills as well. Growth is measured, goals are set, and everyone is asked to reflect on their progress consistenly. Grades aren’t the point.

The net is rich with resources that others have used to assess the work of literature circle groups, but I always preferred to make my own rubrics and use anecdotal records to inform my work with students. Most of the teachers that I know do too.

I’m wondering how others assess the work of literature circle participants. Beyond projects, papers, and tests…how do you use this opportunity to learn more about the learners in your classroom and attend to their needs better?

This post is the fifth in a series on literature circles. My last post will be up tomorrow, and I’ll be talking technology for those who are interested in bringing their circles up to speed. You can catch the previous posts here:

1. Launching Literature Circles

2. Circling Around Essential Questions

3. Engaging All Students in Literature Circles

4. Coaching Effective Literature Circle Behaviors: A Guest Post by Linda Clinton


1 Comment

  1. I think you can do formative assessments for Literature Circles walking around from group to group listening to the conversation and asking a few key questions. Perhaps you might have a short checklist with group members names on it. Note what level of understanding different students express. The activity of the teacher is key to having a handle on where the students are. Recognize where students are and who might need reinforcement as they go through story/reading. It is a constant monitor and review where needed so mastery is achieved.

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