What Are Book Clubs?

How do Book Clubs Work?

Using Book Clubs to Encourage
Literacy Development

    by Pamela Little

Growing numbers of women and men across the country are gathering once or twice a month in libraries, restaurants, homes, and online to discuss books. For children as for adults, book clubs, or literature circles, are an excellent way to exchange ideas, opinions, and feelings by sharing books. Research shows that literature circles can make a strong contribution to children's literacy achievement by encouraging independent reading and cooperative learning.

What Are Book Clubs?

Book clubs are student-led discussions in which participants develop understanding of a selected text through social interaction. In Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, 2nd ed., (Stenhouse, 2001) Harvey Daniels describes the theory and practice of literature circles and analyzes the research that supports their effectiveness. Here's how he defines literature circles in the first edition of his book (1994):

Literature circles are small, temporary discussion groups who have chosen to read the same story, poem, article, or book. While reading each group-determined portion of the text, each member prepares to take specific responsibilities in the upcoming discussion, and everyone comes to the group with notes needed to help perform that job. The circles have regular meetings, with discussion roles rotating each session. When they finish a book, the circle members plan a way to share highlights of their reading with the wider community; then they trade members with other finishing groups, select more reading, and move into a new cycle. (p. 13).

A key strength of the literature circle model is the social interaction that occurs when participants share ideas and responses. Wilson and Simpson's 1994 article in The Literature Base (vol. 5, no. 2) acknowledges "the value of talk in assisting students' understanding, thinking and learning" during literature circle discussions (p. 9).

The companion website to Daniels's book, LiteratureCircles.com, provides a quick list of the hallmarks of literature circles. Cosponsored by Stenhouse Publishers and the Walloon Institute, the site's overview of literature circle practices, resources, and research is a good place to start in thinking of how to institute literature circles in your program.

Two additional websites provide more information on the rationale and practice of book clubs:

  • Pathfinder Literature Circles from the Winnipeg School Division provides a bibliography of books and articles, as well as online resources.
  • Seattle University School of Education's Literature Circles Resource Center gives an overview that further defines literature circles, describes their role in a literacy program, and outlines their differences from teacher-centered instruction.

How Do Book Clubs Work?

Forming successful literature circles requires good planning. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions.

How many members should the book club have?
Five to ten members is a good target. Consider 15 the maximum, so that everyone will have a chance to voice their opinion. The last thing you want to do is make participants raise their hands as in school! Three members can have a good discussion if all are interested in the book. The number of adult facilitators you have available provides the upper limit on the number of groups you can run.

How do we group participants?
Ideally, Daniels suggests that children select their groups based on their interest in a particular book. If one group seems too large, you can reassign children to ensure an appropriate group size.

If your program has already grouped participants by gender, age, or maturity or reading level, you could simply use those groups. Alternatively, set up a block of time for the book group, in which the children can mix with members of other group based on the books chosen.

If you feel you must assign children to groups, consider gender, age, and reading level. It's nice to have different opinions from children of both genders. However, the boys may be interested in different kinds of books than the girls are. A fairly narrow range of reading levels is a must, since all will be reading the same books. Most high school book groups can span ninth to twelfth grade, but such a wide range may not be appropriate for younger children.

How frequently should we meet?
Many book groups meet once a month. For a more intense book group, consider meeting every other week.

How do we select a book?
Start your literature circle with an organizational meeting. Select a few books to introduce with short book talks in the first meeting. Then participants can get to know each other and vote on books the group will read. Some clubs read only one kind of book, such mysteries or fantasy, while others like to read a wide range of literature.

If possible, gather multiple copies of two or three titles by requesting them in advance from your local public library, which can gather them from various branches if it's a large system or acquire them via interlibrary loan if it's not. Having multiple copies of several books on hand gives members easy access to the first month's choice. If you feel you must select a book for the first meeting, consider a title with some name recognition, excellent writing, and enough action to keep readers interested in returning—such as A Wrinkle in Time, the subject of this issue's book club guide.

Who leads the literature circle?
Ideally, the adult facilitator rotates specific roles among circle participants in order to provide a structure that will enable all students to connect to the book. Middle school teacher Janet Lopez provides handouts for various group roles including Facilitator, Literary Luminary, Character Captain, and Vocabulary Enricher. Such roles encourage readers to interpret texts in different ways; in combination, they allow students to apply a variety of learning styles to arrive at multiple interpretations of the text. The Artistic Adventurer, for instance, is responsible for bringing an artistic representation of some aspect of the book to the discussion. You might extend this activity by having all the children draw a picture that relates some aspect of the story to their own life.

The facilitator may need to model some roles to get things started. For the first meeting, you may want to have just two roles: Take the role of discussion leader yourself, and have one or two children set up snacks. Add new roles as participants gain experience in sharing leadership.

How do you start the discussion and keep it going?
A wonderful way to start the discussion is to say simply, "So, what did you like about this book?" Once everyone has weighed in with their opinion, you can use prepared discussion questions to continue the conversation—though you may find that participants have enough to say to carry the entire meeting. Don't panic if no one talks right away; silence doesn't necessarily indicate lack of opinion. Give group members time to collect their thoughts. If it appears no one has read the book, redirect the discussion to other books they are reading, to new books that have just come out, or to universal questions related to the book's theme that might get them interested in eventually finishing the book.

How can we keep the discussion going?
Why not direct literature circle participants to an online book club? Here are a few:

Anything else I should know?
While running a literature circle is a lot a fun, it can also be hard work. If you want help, email me. I'll be happy to work with you to get your club going. The first few sessions may be a little crazy as you work out details, but you'll be surprised how much fun you and your kids can have discussing the great books you read!

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