Using Academic Literature Circles to Foster Discussion in the College Classroom

I do not want the same handful of students to participate and dominate, but rather I aim to engage and invite every single student to speak and participate in every class.

I have a few goals for instruction in my college classrooms. One of my goals is to talk as little as possible and instead allow my students to learn from each other, guide the path of discussion, and be at the center of the learning that takes place. Additionally, in class discussion, I do not want the same handful of students to participate and dominate, but rather I aim to engage and invite every single student to speak and participate in every class.

Another goal is to provide my students with relevant course materials that act as the foundation for the classroom discussion and supplement the day’s objectives. These materials often come from articles in peer-reviewed journals and chapters from published texts. As most college professors have discovered, if students do not actually read this material before class, and read it deeply, then my first goal of having student-centered discussion and learning opportunities is almost impossible. So then rises the questions: how do I motivate students to read the assigned material and how do I create engaged discussions?

A tried and true discussion activity in secondary English Language Arts classrooms is known as literature circles. Literature circles, first detailed and outlined in Harvey Daniels’ 1994 practitioner text by the same name, assigns students a common literary work, forms students into groups of about five or six, and then assigns each student a designated role to discuss with their group members. This then becomes a sort of “book club” but in a more focused and structured format as it provides students with unique accountability. Each student is assigned to a different role that only they can share with their peers. These roles traditionally include the jobs of summarizer, discussion director, illuminator, word wizard, connector, travel tracer, and visualizer. Another genius of the literature circle is that on top of creating a group discussion where every student shares their findings from the reading according to their assigned role, it also motivates students to do the reading by holding them accountable through an authentic informal formative assessment. Teachers are not tempted to give students reading quizzes that only test surface-level knowledge.

In my college classrooms, I have adapted Daniels’ literature circles towards academic texts, and refer to them as Academic Literature Circles, or ALCs. At the beginning of the semester, students create their own ALC groups with the understanding that they will be working and discussing with this group of peers consistently throughout the term. We then go over the different ALC roles that students will complete as they do their readings during the semester. A detailed list of these roles can be seen in the below table.

Table 1


To visualize something means to create a mental image of it or to make it visible. That is the goal of the visualizer. In this role, you should present a summary of the text that is no more than 10 sentences. The summary should be focused and capture the big ideas presented in the text versus trying to retell everything. You should also present some sort of visual aid that helps illustrate the text and bring it to life for readers. Examples include, but are not limited to, a chart, an image, a metaphor, etc.


Word Diver

To dive means to plunge head first into something or take a steep descent. As the word diver, this is what you will be doing with regards to words and their meaning. In this role, you should select 5 words from the reading and take a deep dive in exploring their meaning. These may be words you think you understand the meaning of but would benefit from more clarity. In selecting these words, consider what key terms are necessary to understanding the concept. Also consider their connection to the theoretical lens presented. So what does it look like to take a deep dive on a word? First, you will want to start with a dictionary definition; however, you need to go beyond that. Consider the etymology of the word. What are its origins? How has the word developed in the English language? Second, consider examples of its use that might help us better understand the word’s larger meaning, especially within our context.


Elevator Pitcher

To give an elevator pitch means to sell an idea within a relatively short time frame -- 30 seconds to 1 minute. Your goal in this role is to distill the ideas of the reading into common language and explain it to other literature teachers in layman’s terms. This is something different than a summary with its core focus being on making the explanation short and accessible to others. Your elevator pitch should do the following: tell who the author/theorist is, identify their theoretical lens, explain the theory in layman’s terms (no jargon), and connect the theory to classroom practice. In this context, it may exceed the 30 second to 1 minute time frame for a typical elevator pitch; however, you should aim to keep it focused and brief (no more than 2 - 3 minutes).



Connect to other texts/ readings from your own education experiences as well as those from other classes. How does this relate or connect to something you’ve experienced as a student in secondary school? How does it connect to maybe something you’ve observed in a classroom? What other readings or things have you learned in different classes, education or not, that tie to the ideas presented?



Relate the reading to a classroom strategy, how does this reading impact a classroom environment? How would the ideas from this reading look in a classroom? What teaching strategies are discussed here, how could you incorporate these ideas in your future classroom?

While the roles are made specific to my English education methods students, they can be adapted for any course discipline. Students meet in their ALC groups about once a week for 15 minutes to discuss the assigned readings for that day. Each week students rotate the roles that they will complete. Students are also asked to record the notes and preparation they do to complete their ALC roles and then turn them in as evidence twice during the semester. Not only do the ALCs encourage the students to complete the reading so that they can contribute to their group’s discussion, but the roles also provide for a focused reading opportunity-- allowing students to comprehend and navigate more complex or difficult text.

The best thing about ALCs is the level of discussion they inspire. While at first students might feel a bit constrained to only report on their assigned role, students quickly become comfortable with the routine and begin to break out and beyond their assigned roles. Students ask their peers to elaborate, question where they came up with those ideas, share stories of their own thoughts and connections, and grapple with the text in ways that become directly applicable and relevant to themselves. Furthermore, ALCs have allowed me to accomplish my two most passionate instructional goals: students are reading the assigned material and learning from it, AND students are learning from each other. When I point out to my students that every single one of them is speaking and actively participating in almost every single class, I think we all feel a sense of accomplishment.

Daniels, H. (1994). Literature circles. York, ME: Stenhouse.

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