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But Does it Work?

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Recent Research on Literature Circles

from Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups

by Harvey Daniels (Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, ME: 2002) 

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The body of research on literature groups is growing quickly. Unfortunately, these studies appear under so many different names (literature studies, book clubs, literature discussion groups, book clubs, literature circles, cooperative book discussion groups) and often combine so many divergent ingredients (teacher control versus student autonomy, assigned versus chosen books) that one has to read very carefully. But all sorts of evidence, support, and teacher testimonials are accumulating about literature circles.

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Our own research in Chicago has linked Literature Circles to improving student achievement scores. Between 1995 and 1998, our Center for City Schools received a grant from the Chicago Annenberg Challenge to support the development of instruction in a group of struggling Chicago schools. Our intervention was very focused: we helped teachers to implement literature circles, as part of a reading-writing workshop approach, in as many classrooms as we could. Our training involved summer institutes and school-year support, delivered by peer consultants, veteran Chicago teachers who had used these strategies in their own classrooms. Even though our consultants only worked with a fraction of each school’s faculty, school-wide results were encouraging. In reading, our schools outstripped citywide test score gains by 14% in 3rd grade, 9% in 6th grade, and 10% in 8th grade. In writing, they topped citywide gains by 25% in grade 3, 8% in grade 6, and 27% in grade 8. Now there was a lot of good work going on in these schools, and it is never possible to tell exactly what treatments caused what gains. But the teachers were convinced: their literature circles were working, not just to help kids become readers, but also to prove they are readers on the mandated measures of proficiency.

kids5smal.gif (32885 bytes) Other researchers have been finding similarly promising outcomes. A 1998 study of fourth graders by Klinger, Vaugn, and Schumm found that students in peer-led groups made greater gains than controls in reading comprehension and equal gains in content knowledge after a reading and discussing social studies material in peer-led groups. This effect was confirmed through a standardized reading test, a social studies unit test, and audiotapes of group work. Interestingly, the researchers found that students small-group talk was 65% academic and content-related, 25% procedural, 8% feedback, with only 2% off-task.

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Martinez-Roldan and Lopez-Robertson looked at the effect of literature circles in a first-grade bilingual classroom. They found that "young bilingual children, no matter what their linguistic background, are able to have rich discussions if they have regular opportunities to engage with books." Interestingly, they found that many of the Spanish-dominant children were more eager and ready to make personal connections with stories than the English speakers, who tended to stick closer to the text on the page. The Hispanic children manifested their connections through the telling of extended stories, a style of response which the English speaking kids rarely utilized.

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Dana Grisham of San Diego State University has been an indefatigable recorder of emerging Literature Circle research. Her 1999 bibliography was a major contribution to the field, and can be found in its entirety on the Literature Circles website at She also organized the first panel at the American Educational Research Association to focus on literature circles. Grisham has catalogued literature circle research documenting benefits for inner-city students (Pardo, 1992); incarcerated adolescents (Hill and Van Horn, 1995); "resistant" learners (Hauschildt & McMahon, 1996); homeless children and children living in poverty (Hanning, 1998); second-language learners (MacGillivray, 1995); and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners (Dupuy, 1997). Various versions of book clubs and literature study circles have been found to increase student enjoyment of and engagement in reading (Fox and Wilkinson, 1997); to expand children’s discourse opportunities (Kaufmann, et al, 1997; Scharer, 1996); to increase multicultural awareness (Hansen-Krening, 1997); to promote other perspectives on social issues (Noll, 1994); to provide social outlets for students (Alvermann et al, 1977); and to promote gender equity (Evans, Alverman, and Anders, 1998). Other than that we don’t know much about Lit Circles!

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