6 Problems with Literature Circles

Are literacy circles right for your classroom

We recently posted a comparison between Reciprocal Teaching and Literature Circles covering the pros and cons of each teaching strategy. While there appeared to be an overall winner (we aren’t saying which one, you’ll have to read it), there have been a few questions arise around literature circles. Literature Circles have the potential to increase student engagement with a text, develop independent learning, and reduce the need to “spoon feed” information to the students. They are in so many schools and classrooms across the country, it must be a strategy that works. Right??

Today we delve into the 6 problems with literature circles, looking at the ideal of the strategy and what occurs in reality. Don’t let these issues dishearten you. Instead, use them so that you know what to expect when you start your own literature circles and maybe build up a few tools on how to stop them from occurring in your classroom.


The Problem with Literature Circles 1 - Altruism

Will students always strive for others


Literature circles rely on the idea that all students want to achieve and contribute equally. They are willing participants who take on their roles seriously and strive to better their peers. Everyone gets a chance to have their own input to ensure all students gain a deeper understanding of a topic or text. The ideal is every student wants their peers to excel, or even surpass, their own knowledge. It is a beautiful utopian classroom where that happens and one all teachers would strive for.


Almost every time, no matter how hard teachers try, students will find the easy way out. Even as adults, many would prefer to just “tick the boxes” than dive into a topic and really understand all of its nuances. As soon as one student doesn’t contribute, and there appears to be no reprimand, others will be sure to follow. The reason? Why should I put in any effort if no one else will? What do I get out of it? I’m not going to help the “lazy” ones.

Literature circles rely on students helping their peers, but it is a concept that is foreign to most of them. They are forever pitted against others, compared, ranked, and judged. The idea that they should all achieve as a cohort is not how we have built the education system over the last 100 years. Students are not taught how to be altruistic.


The Problem with Literature Circles 2 - Relying on students


Students are able to openly discuss without teacher facilitation. As a literature circle, they will ensure all members are on task, focused and contributing. They will continue with a robust conversation of the text, all of their own accord.


As soon as students know they are not being observed, they won’t continue their conversations as expected. This is especially relevant in certain year groups. In general, in secondary school, Years 9 and 10 are notoriously difficult to keep on task and focused. There is a lot going on in their lives, so they think, and it leads to procrastination and distractions. The issue is exactly the same in Primary School. Contributing to this, if there is no assessment, no proof that work has been completed or justification of what they discussed, students will inevitably end up distracted. The conversation will turn to their weekend or the latest Netflix show. If there are no repercussions, no extrinsic hurdle, then they will find it difficult. Generally, students find learning for the enjoyment of learning a difficult idea.


The Problem with Literature Circles 3 - Student ability


Students will ask deep questions according to their roles. They will discuss all of the relevant concepts, ideas, and challenge each other. Their answers will consist of relevant language that contains key terms and vocabulary. Students will respond with high order thinking and knowledge during literature circles.


Students don’t know what they don’t know. Unless they are explicitly taught the types of questions to ask, and then have the language to answer these questions, the depth of knowledge will remain at a surface level. There will always need to be someone in the literature circle who understands and can direct the discussions. If the circle has students with low literacy abilities, then their role will not be fulfilled to its designed capacity and therefore the literature circle will not progress successfully. The high achieving student will feel like they are there to teach the lower ability students which can adversely affect their own core knowledge.


The Problem with Literature Circles 4 - Am I on track?


Students will know their learning and have a deep understanding of the text. They will have a broad knowledge with a variety of relating information to allow them to perform well in assessments and tests. Their notes will be broad, as well as deep, on the topic, themes, and concepts.


Without a whiteboard or a teacher pointing out “this part is important”, many students struggle with knowing what is relevant. Some will write down everything, whereas others will add a few words or, worst case scenario, nothing at all. A quality teacher has backward mapped from the assessment to the classwork to ensure everything is covered. Students, on the other hand, do not always know the big picture so may focus on the wrong elements of the text. This is relevant in senior studies where students have very specific themes or concepts. Without a teacher pointing out some of the important information and keeping the students learning on track, there is the possibility they will not find the right information.


The Problem with Literature Circles 5 - No responsibility


Through questioning and responding, students’ will be able to have a deep understanding of the text and will, therefore, be able to recite the information clearly. Each role is accountable for the learning of others, and their own. They will take responsibility for their learning.


How do you keep track of student progress and success? How do you know that they are grasping the major concepts? Is the time spent on reading, questioning, and challenging each other become evident in their written responses? If students aren’t “forced” to do work, many will choose not to. More than that, if there is no formative assessment and the literature circles is simply “classwork”, could time be spent better some other way? It is hard to track 30 students, each with different roles, sitting in groups talking, to truly have a solid understanding of how they are developing their literacy skills?


The Problem with Literature Circles 6 - Reading with blinders on

Do the roles make readers read with blinders


The roles enable students to have a clear understanding of what they need to look for to help others. Roles offer students a direct route to interact with the text. The roles will, ideally, alternate for each text so students build their own capacity.


The structure of the roles in literature circles means that students will, more often than not, only focus on what it is they have to do. If their role is to be the Vocabulary Enricher then that is all they will focus on. They will miss any of the other elements while they read. Instead, they will rely solely on someone else finding that for them. If a student was the Investigator, the person who finds out all of the background information surrounding the text, then why would they be focusing on the new words or finding their own summary of the text?

Even when students change roles, if it is a different text there will be holes in their understanding. If it is the same text, then the literature circle will feel a little redundant.


What to do?

Don’t be discouraged. Knowing what you know means that you are able to be prepared. Every teacher’s classroom is different, and so are their students. The ideals of literature circles do not necessarily have to turn into the reality within your classroom, but it is best to be prepared.


Have you tried Literature Circles? Read more on how they work compared to Reciprocal Teaching.


Looking for other reading strategies? Here is 9 Reading Strategies for Reading Comprehension

We’ve also included 9 Literacy Strategies for Writing