Using Literature Circles Instruction to Develop Reading Comprehension Skills

Using Literature Circles Instruction to Develop Reading Comprehension Skills

Jing Zhao (Brighton High School, USA) and MaryAnn Christison (University of Utah, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2722-1.ch017


This chapter introduces readers to the interactive methodology of literature circles instruction. The chapter shows how this methodology is effective for the development of literacy skills for linguistically and culturally diverse groups of language learners. Literature circles instruction is supported by two key theoretical perspectives in second language acquisition, namely, sociocultural theory (SCT) and the basic tenets of reader-response theory. Also in this chapter is a brief overview of the research on literature circles instruction in two areas: (1) the development of reading comprehension skills and (2) the attributes of effective literature circles instruction, including a discussion of the issues related to the use of literary texts and the importance of student-led discussion groups. The second part of the chapter provides information for classroom practitioners, showing how the principles for literature circles instruction can be enacted in classrooms with diverse language learners.
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In educational environments where there is a population of linguistically and culturally diverse children and young adults learning a majority language, educators are very likely to encounter learners who are at risk in terms of developing literacy skills that transfer well into workplace contexts in the 21st century. The prevalence of at-risk English learners is especially robust in BANA countries (Britain, Australasia, and North America) (see, for example, Ball, 2011; NCES, 2018) but is also prevalent in other countries that accept large numbers of immigrants and have a great deal of linguistic diversity within their public educational systems (e.g., Hernes, Martin, & Zadra, 2004; Krulatz, Dahl, & Flognfeldt, 2018). In response to the impact of demographic changes and large-scale migration on schools and educational systems, conceptions of literacy and how to teach it to linguistically and culturally diverse learners in the 21st century have been evolving and changing. Although reading and writing are essential components of literacy, these concepts alone are not sufficient to describe the complex practices that educators must embrace to foster its development. Literacy cannot be described simply as learning the letters in an alphabet, writing words and sentences, or reading a book and understanding what has been read. Rather, it must be conceived in terms of the development of a specific set of skills to communicate with others, to expand one’s knowledge of the world, and to foster mutual understanding across cultures and languages (LoBianco & Freebody, 2001; Lonsdale & McCurry, 2004; UNESCO Education Sector, 2004). To meet the needs of language learners, educators continue to look for effective ways to teach literacy to accomplish these goals.

Literature circles instruction is an interactive methodology that can be effective in helping language learners develop literacy skills, particularly reading comprehension skills. Even though the ways in which literature circles might be implemented vary depending on the age of the learners, it can be used with learners from as young as aged six to adults who are studying in postsecondary contexts and developing literacy skills in a second or foreign language (SFL). In literature circles instruction, learners are encouraged to read texts and work together in small groups to construct meaning cooperatively (Daniels, 2002). In these student-led discussion groups, each student is assigned a role that corresponds to a specific cognitive task and a reading strategy. In addition, learners are given specific information (in the form of teacher-prepared role sheets) to assist them in carrying out the and in developing language skills. To this end, the student-led discussions not only provide opportunities for group members to construct meaning from the text but also encourage them to develop the language skills related to the assigned roles. Although the student-led discussion groups have been a defining characteristic of the methodology for literature circles instruction, it is not the only important component. Literature circles pedagogy also includes explicit instruction provided by the teacher, which occurs at the beginning and end of each class (Daniels, 2002; Zhao, 2019). The teacher also plays an important role as a facilitator, supporting students in interacting with one another and with the text, particularly during times when learners are learning to work independently in groups (Daniels, 2002; Martinez-Roldan & Lopez-Robertson, 1999; McElvain, 2010). Because of the increase in the number of young language learners in multilinguistic and culturally diverse settings and in the number of young learners who are developing literacy skills in both their first language (L1) and in an SFL concurrently using different writing systems, there is a need for instructional pedagogies that address the development of literacy skills across different orthographies (Tse & Cheung, 2010).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): There is an actual level of development and a potential level of development for learners. The ZPD is the difference between what a learner can accomplish on his or her own and the zone that represents what a learner cannot accomplish, regardless of assistance. In the ZPD, learners can accomplish tasks with support from others who have greater knowledge and understanding.

Learner Roles: When learners participate in group discussions, they assume certain responsibilities or roles that help the discussion group function effectively. Possible roles include time (1) Vocabulary-enricher, (2) Discussion Director, (3) Illustrator, (4) Summarizer, and (5) Connector.

Student-Led Discussions: Student-led discussions are sometimes called literature circles. In student-led discussions, learners are self-directed to promote more frequent and meaningful interactions within their learning group.

Sociocultural Theory (SCT): Sociocultural theory emerged from the work of Vygotsky (1978) and asserts that the development of higher order thinking skills is largely shaped by society. In other words, learning is a social practice reliant upon interactions between learners and those they interact with, including parents, teachers, and peers.

Scaffolding: The way instructors utilize different techniques to build up a framework for student growth. By utilizing layers of techniques that build upon one another, educators create points of support for students to fall back on. These supports can be removed when the learners progress beyond the point of needing them.

Reader-Response Theory: A theory regarding literacy development. It argues that there is no single correct interpretation for any text. Instead, meaning is created as readers seek their own understandings of what they have read. For example, two different readers may find completely different meanings in the same text and both may be considered equally valid.

Literature Circles: A student-led discussion group that focuses on comprehending a piece of literature. Literature circles can used for teaching literacy through cooperative interaction within groups of learners.

Communities of Practice: Groups of people who gain experience, knowledge, and understanding regarding a shared passion or interest through interactions with one another.

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