Elaine Jaltema’s Lit Circle notes

Literature Circle Format, Elaine Jaltema

In my intermediate class (grades 4/5, 5/6, or 6/7) students meet in literature circle groups every week from the end of September until the end of June. I use a format that looks, sounds, and feels like an adult book club. My students love it!

I stopped using the common system of roles (connector, director, illustrator, etc.) in order to put the emphasis on reading and discussing rather than writing and reporting. I have also tried using the method where students read at their own pace and say anything that interests them but my students and I prefer the following format in which everyone reads the same section and can make predictions.

I join the group (or have a student teacher or volunteer with the group) in order to ensure that the group discusses the meaty ideas in the book. It also gives me a fabulous chance for meaningful conversations with kids, especially those who are less visible in a large group.

Here is my process:

➢ I gather multiple copies of 5-7 different novels, usually gathered around a theme. The novels represent a variety in levels and styles. I give short book talks for all of the books, then I give students a little time to look through them and try reading a few pages. Students fill out a request form, listing their top 4 preferences. This system allows the teacher to organize balanced groups and assign books that are suitable for students’ reading levels. I typically put kids into groups of the 5 most popular novels and put the unselected titles away for another time.

➢ Students read an agreed upon section for each week’s meeting – usually about 60 pages which is 1/3 or 1/4 of the book. An average reader reading a grade level book will read a page in 2 minutes or less. Therefore 60 pages per week will take most kids about 2 hours of reading at home. Easier novels usually have less than 180 pages, making it easy to give less capable readers fewer pages to read each week.

➢ Students are not allowed to read ahead of the week’s assigned section so the entire group has the fun of guessing what will happen next.

➢ Keen readers often join 2 or even 3 groups. I put some of these “bright lights” into an easy book for their second book in order to raise the caliber of discussion for the easiest novel. That also means it isn’t obvious which is the “easy read” for the less skilled readers.

➢ Students have a routine assignment: write down 2 fat, juicy questions and a connection about the week’s reading, look up 3 unfamiliar words in the dictionary and write down their meanings. Fat questions are ones that have no right answer so they can elicit different responses and discussion. As the year progresses, I begin to give an additional weekly assignment which could be writing a reflection or completing a task related to the theme (see next page for examples).

➢ Meetings are scheduled once a week. If I have a volunteer or student teacher, I can schedule two meetings to occur simultaneously. When I do this, I have to work out the meeting schedule before assigning groups to make sure I don’t put my keen readers into groups that are meeting at the same time.

➢ Students sit together with me in a circle in a corner of the room.

➢ I start each meeting by asking students “skinny” comprehension questions just to check that they have read and understood the week’s section. Those who can’t answer the questions at any meeting will have to write a test at the end of the book in order to get credit for the book. Those who are obviously reading with understanding are spared the need for a test. If I have trouble scheduling a time for me to meet with each group, I give the kids the additional assignment to write 2 skinny questions so they can check each other’s comprehension, rather than my having to do so.

➢ Then the kids take over the meeting with me as an observer who sometimes chimes in if there is something I want to say. Children take turns asking their fat, juicy questions. When each child asks a question, classmates raise their hands to give their answer. Answers can’t be simple “yes” or “no”; they need to explain their thinking. Students can’t repeat an idea that has already been said. When everyone who wants to speak has been heard, the questioner answers his/her own question. They go around the circle asking first questions, then second questions, then giving personal connections.

➢ Meetings last half an hour. During the meetings, other students do silent reading or other quiet work.

➢ Most often, the discussion of questions and reporting of connections uses the whole half hour and I simply glance at the students’ other written work to give them a mark. If the group is small, there may be time for them to share some of their other written work.

➢ During the meeting, I am openly marking their preparation and participation. They tend to take care of each other by making sure that everyone gets a chance to give enough answers to get “5” for oral participation. They get 3 marks for having read and understood the section and another 2 marks for completing the written work.

Literature Circles Assessment

Book: _ Section: Date: Teacher:
*Start all Literature Circle meetings by going around the circle, asking literal comprehension questions to determine whether students have done the required reading.

Comprehension √
2 fat questions √
Connection √
3 words √

Preparation 1-5
Oral 1-5
Notes: _

Use the blank spot to record some other task, such as:
• Use a post-it note to mark a short passage (3-5 sentences) that shows powerful writing
• Tell about a time when a character makes a positive difference
• Tell about a time when a character makes a difficult choice and explain how making a different choice would have led to a different consequence
• Tell something funny that happened
• Tell how a character changed
• Record each section on a plot line
• Complete a novel study sheet
• Write 3 animal facts that you learned from this week’s reading
• Write a response:
Response choices:
1. I predict….
2. I didn’t understand….
3. Now I know why…
4. The feelings I had in reading this were….
5. I would like to know….
6. If it was up to me….
7. I really like the following passage…. I like this passage because….
8. The character:
_ reminds me of someone else….
9. I would love/hate to be like
_ because….
10. The author uses suspense when….
11. If only….
12. The author grabbed my attention by….
13. Something that surprised me is….
14. I am enjoying reading this book because….
15. I am not enjoying reading this book because….


Cooperative Learning Tips and Strategies

Top Tips for Cultivating a Caring & Collaborative Community
Written by Elaine Jaltema, Intermediate Teacher
Meet basic needs: Plan to meet people’s needs for belonging, power & recognition, freedom and fun (Restitution Theory by Diane Gossen). One example is to teach students different fun ways to show recognition of another’s achievements, e.g.:
• A “round of applause” – clap in a circle
• WOW – make a W with each hand and an O in the middle with your mouth
• The standing “O” – stand and make a large letter “O” with arms
• Crocodile clapping – stand and make large clapping arms like jaws
• Seal of approval – clap arms like flippers
• Drum roll – drum on desks
• Self-ovation – standing, bring elbow almost to opposite knee & yell “Yes!”
• Deaf clap
• Quiet clap: finger snapping
• Self high 5
• “I’m so bright I have to wear sunglasses!”

Use Cooperative group learning structures: Remember to include all 5 elements and to coach students often on what cooperation looks like (sitting at the same height in a circle, leaning in) and sounds like (encouraging comments and solicitous questions). The 5 elements are Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Face-to-Face Interaction, Social Skills, and Group Processing. Assign social tasks concurrent with academic tasks. Whenever new groups are formed, it’s important to give them a short group-building task to help them become comfortable with one another. Low-risk activities work well such as: describe your favourite dinner or your dream vacation.

Use name cards to call on students: Print each student’s name on a small card. By using these cards to call on students to answer questions, you don’t fall into the trap of calling on only those who continually raise their hands. If a student doesn’t know the answer, they call say “help” and pass the question on to someone who raises their hand. Put the card back into the middle of the stack rather than on the bottom so that students don’t figure they can count on a free ride once they have been called on. You might choose to keep track of who calls for help rather than giving their own answer by putting a check mark on the back of the cards when they call for help.

Use name cards to divide students into groups: Once students are used to seeing you continually shuffle these cards to call on students and place them in random groups, they don’t notice that sometimes you have pre-loaded them so they fall into the groups or partnerships that you have secretly selected.

Hold class meetings: Have students take turns chairing weekly meetings that include thank-yous between students, opportunities to bring up problems, and planning something where students can make genuine decisions such as games for P.E., an event, topic or method for learning, or new system for organizing room.

Number desks: If students are routinely sitting in pods, you can easily refer to each desk position by number, regardless of where each student is sitting. For example: Your 6 pods are numbered 1-6. Each desk position within the pod is numbered 1-5. In this way, directions are very quick, e.g.
• In the gym, even pods are on this side and odd pods are on the other
• Person 3 picks up the hand-outs
• Start your discussion by listening to person 4 first
• Persons 2 & 4 move one pod over and share your group’s ideas

Make it safe for kids to tell: Every couple of weeks, give students a writing topic for a 10 minute silent write. Give them the choice of writing instead an anonymous note about what you should know, e.g. who is being picked on, how people are feeling, a change they’d like to make in the class, etc. At the end of the writing time, everyone turns in their papers with no one knowing who wrote on the assigned topic and who has given you other information. If you do this early in the day, you can read the comments and address them in an appropriate way in a class meeting.

Establish leadership teams: Divide your class into 5 mixed-ability teams who are responsible for the leadership one day a week, e.g. setting up gym equipment, cleaning up the room, handing out supplies, making decisions about activities, etc.

Keep Repeating the Tribes Trail to maintain a collaborative community:
1. Inclusion (a sense of belonging)
2. Influence (valuing differences)
3. Community (working together creatively)