Literature Circles: Families Reading Together

When you’re a single mother, you work here, you work there — even if you want to sit down and talk with your kids, you can’t,” lamented Raysa Vidal. Balancing her responsibilities as mother of three and as Home-School Community Liaison at Paterson, New Jersey’s School 14, Vidal knew that her family couldn’t Wt another thing into their days and nights — but she also knew that her youngest son, George, a fourth grader at School 14, would benefit tremendously from more time reading at home.

As Vidal struggled with finding time to read with George, School Media Specialist Linda Ernst went in search of ways to support her and other Paterson families. “I wanted to make parents more aware of sharing books with their kids,” recalled Ernst. “Very few did — maybe they didn’t know how. My goal was to enable parents to share and appreciate reading. If kids see their parents read, then the kids would be more likely to read and learn.” Her quest to promote family literacy at School 14 — which enrolls 220 students in grades one through four — led her to literature circles.

Literature Circle Roles: Some Examples

Artful Artist
Participants use visual art to represent significant ideas or scenes.

Capable Connector

Participants find connections between the reading material and other events in their lives: personal experiences, something studied in another class, or another book, for example.

Discussion Director
Participants write questions that will initiate and guide group discussion.

Literary Luminary
Participants select interesting or important passages.

Word Wizard
Participants discuss words in the text that are unusual, interesting, or difficult to understand.

Literature circles originally emerged in the 1980s as small student-led literature discussion groups — they are often described as book clubs for kids in classroom settings — and have a strong research base demonstrating how they contribute to literacy improvement and achievement (see More About Literature Circles, page 16, for pointers to this research). Working with Raysa Vidal, New Jersey CES coach Stacy Pendergrast, School 14 principal Rosetta Wilson, and other staff members, Ernst adapted literature circles to include third and fourth grade students reading and discussing books with their families. The family literature circles took place once a week after school and work, from 5:30 to 7:00. The school provided pizza and childcare so that families could come with all of their children and not worry about having to fix dinner afterward. Parents did bring other kids — one mother with five children was a regular participant — and all of them, from three year-olds through teenagers, soon started to participate in the book discussions. Pendergrast says, “Kids that are four and people that are forty are discussing the same story. The process is not scaled down for the younger kids and it really engaged parents. Everyone participates at his or her own level. This inclusiveness creates a really evident tone of decency. It doesn’t matter who you are— if you’re there, you join in because it feels so warm and inviting.”

At the elementary school level, facilitators of literature circles often employ a variety of roles to provide structure so the readers can connect to the books and lead discussions. (See “Literature Circle Roles: Some Examples” for more detail on the roles that School 14’s participants used.) “One of the roles that we started off with was the Artful Artist. Ms. Ernst reads a story to the whole group, and then each person goes to work making sense of the story through his or her chosen role. If you’re the Artful Artist, you draw a picture from your own life that relates to story and then, when you lead the conversation, you use the picture as a discussion prompt. It concretely teaches children how reading can connect to their own lives. We read one story about a fire, which is something all adults and kids can relate to. Everyone drew different pictures, discussing our experiences with fire and how they related to the story.”

Some books that School 19’s literature circle participants discussed:

A Chair for My Mother, Vera B. Williams (Scott Foresman, 1984)

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst (Aladdin Library, 1987)

Down by the Cool of the Pool, Tony Mitton (Orchard Books, 2002)

Fly Away Home, Eve Bunting (Clarion Books, 1993)

Monster Mama, Liz Rosenberg (Putnam Publishing, 1993)

As the weeks progressed, Ernst and Pendergrast introduced additional roles and encouraged participants to chose among them. “Though we have clear goals of encouraging family literacy and increasing the student’s reading skills, it was important that it not be too formal,” said Ernst. “This was also about parents taking time out to be with their children. There was structure but no one felt intimidated.”

Vidal described how she felt as a participating parent. “That hour and a half gave us a new way to get to know our kids. They have a chance to be open and express their opinions in front of a whole bunch of people. A lot of people have stage fright, but on these nights, with family support, kids weren’t afraid to express themselves.” Parents also gained the habit of reading with their kids and the skills to talk about books. And students saw their parents and siblings in a new light, as fellow readers who made time to support and honor them.

Despite literature circles’ track record for improving reading skills and the immediate warmth and connection that families experienced as they read together, attracting families was a challenge. Vidal describes School 14’s families as typically reluctant to participate in family activities in the school setting. “It’s hard to get parents involved. One of the literature circles parents said to me the other day, They’re afraid that school officials will get involved in their business.’ To her I said, ‘We just want to help out. By participating, you’re making everyone’s lives better.’ ” Principal Rosetta Wilson echoes Vidal’s assessment about parents’ reticence to participate: “In the past, we’ve had problems getting parents to come into the school building to talk with us,” she said. But Wilson sees programs like literature circles — run with attention to supporting families’ needs — as crucial to the work of family connection and inclusion. “With this, people are willing to make more of a commitment. They can see the impact that it has on their kids, and they’re learning too; it has immediate rewards.”

To reach out to parents, Ernst sent home announcements and follow-up reminders in English and Spanish. She and Vidal called parents, and she recruited students to promote the program in classes, following up with families of eager students. School 14’s staff members feel that such intensive effort will pay of in future years, as parents start to trust the school and spread the word around the community. In addition to continuing literature circles, the school plans to add family math and science programs in the coming year.

Started as a four-week pilot program in March 2003, Ernst and her colleagues extended the program by an additional four weeks in response to families’ enthusiasm. Grateful for the time to read with her kids, Vidal looks forward to the coming year’s programs and plans a more intensive family recruitment effort for the summer. “I know as a parent that the more you’re involved in your children’s education, the more they’ll do and the better they’ll do,” she said. “If I am involved with teachers, I know my son will do good. And I know I am not going to lose him when he becomes a teenager because is used to doing well in school, and he knows that Mommy will be watching him with four eyes.”

More About Literature Circles
For extensive, thoughtfully written descriptions of the theory and practice of literature circles, along with analysis of research that supports their effectiveness, see Harvey Daniels’ Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, Second edition (Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, ME, 2002) Literature Circles is also available online at

Defining Literature Circles
In Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, author Harvey Daniels writes that literature circles have the following hallmarks:

  1. Students choose their own reading materials
  2. Small temporary groups are formed, based upon book choice
  3. Different groups read different books
  4. Groups meet on a regular, predictable schedule to discus their reading
  5. Kids use written or drawn notes to guide both their reading and discussion
  6. Discussion topics come from the students
  7. Group meetings aim to be open, natural conversations about books, so personal connections, digressions, and open-ended questions are welcome
  8. The teacher serves as a facilitator, not a group member or instructor
  9. Evaluation is by teacher observation and student self-evaluation
  10. A spirit of playfulness and fun pervades the room.

When books are finished, readers share with their classmates, and then new groups form around new reading choices.
The website, cosponsored by Stenhouse Publishers and the Walloon Institute, also provides an overview of literature circle practices, resources, and research.