Selecting books for literature circles is the first step for a successful experience. I’ve been running literature circles in my sixth grade classroom for close to 15 years. I LOVE what the process adds to my curriculum, and I want to offer support to those teachers considering trying literature circles or to those who’ve found them challenging to run. One key factor in running successful literature circles in your classroom is…
selecting the right books.
Here are the key criteria I use when making this all-important decision.
- Student reading levels
- Quality reading material
- Acquiring book sets
- Length of book
- Quantity is important
Read below for more details on how I do all of this in my classroom.
1. Consider student reading levels when selecting books for literature circles
This may seem daunting at first, but it’s actually fairly simple. You have a few options. My school has the Accelerated Reader program, which allows us access to the STAR reading test. I give this test early in the year to get a snapshot of my students’ reading levels. This is especially helpful for the struggling readers and the advanced readers. The levels in-between can be more difficult to accurately discern. Don’t fret if your school doesn’t have access to assessments like the STAR reading test. I don’t place enormous weight on this test, but it does give me an idea of student reading ranges.
More importantly, I listen to all my students read.
We have independent reading time in my classroom at least once each week for 35 minutes. During this time, I’m working like crazy to learn as much as I can about my readers. I kneel next to them and have them read aloud to me. I take notes on my observations. I may do a fluency check on those who seem to be struggling. You also have the cum folders in your office. Check ELA test scores for the past few years.
I have other reading assessments like leveled word lists and a variety of fluency practices, but I find the most important assessment is listening to students read and reading their written responses to my weekly questions on the elements of literature (plot, setting, character, conflict, resolution, theme, mood, tone). I use this versatile reading response form to check in on student progress you can find here. I target my questions to our week’s reading focus. Grab this close reading freebie to help you target goals for book clubs and reading response.
I don’t begin a round of literature circles until we’ve had at least six weeks of school. Actually, I generally start my first literature circles session after Thanksgiving. By this time, I’ve had a lot of exposure to my students as readers. I’ve read many of their responses to their independent novel selections. Here’s a link to hundreds of categorized reading prompts that I use regularly in my classroom.
2. Selecting “Just Right” literature circle books
I select my literature circles reading books based on several criteria: quality, accessibility, length, and quantity.
I try to find novels that have had great reviews and that I know will grab hold and pull my students straight into the book. How do you determine this?
• Talk to other teachers to see what they like.
• Talk to the school librarian to find out what’s popular.
• Talk to the public librarian. Like your school’s librarian, the public librarian knows which books fly off the shelves.
• Talk to your local book store. They’ll happily help, and they may offer discounts.
• Ask your students. If you have several books in mind, see who in class has read them and get their opinions.
3. Consider your resources for selecting literature circles novels
What gems are hiding on your campus?
Dig around your campus. Ask about storage rooms. You may be amazed by what you find. Don’t discount an older book just because the cover looks dated. Several years ago, I found 12 dusty copies of a novel on the shelves in our storage room. Apparently, once upon a time, the 8th grade teachers used it to teach their struggling readers about the Civil War. The cover scene has a kid dressed in 80s clothes with 80s hair…you get the picture. It makes you immediately think–DISCARD!
I took it home and read it. LOVED IT! Now this novel is a perennial favorite among my readers who are just below grade level. Many of my literature circles selections come from books that were stuffed on a dusty shelf somewhere on campus.
Other teachers’ classrooms
Ask other teachers if they have copies of a novel you’re considering. Between all of you, there may be enough copies to use.
County Office of Education
You may have options at your County Office of Education. Our COE provides sets of novels for teachers to check out. Yours may do the same.
Book Order Companies
Scholastic offers great deals on sets of novels. If you’ve ordered books in the past, you may have bonus points you can use on novels. Just an FYI: these books tend to fall apart faster than higher quality purchases, but if you manage the wear and tear, they’ll last years.
You might not realize that your own library has novel sets. And, your librarian may be open to ordering requests!!!
I have found copies of books I needed at our local library. Just be careful to get them returned in good condition. I may give these books to give my adult volunteers who help with literature circles. This way I know they’ll be treated with care and returned on time.
Don’t forget that you can ask families for donations. They may have novels sitting on bookshelves that have already been read by their children. I’ve stocked my classroom bookshelves this way. Additionally, families generally love to donate to the classroom. Send home a note requesting so many copies of a particular novel. They can go online and order it for you. As a parent myself who couldn’t volunteer in my children’s classrooms, one way I felt like I could contribute was by offering donations.
4. Length is important when selecting books for literature circles
I find that the ideal length of time to run a full session of literature circles is between 2 1/2 and 3 weeks. You want a novel that can be read within this timeframe. Before you make your selection, break down the pages into four or five chunks (depending on the number of meetings). Determine if these page goals are reasonable for the time you’ll be giving students to prepare for each literature circle meeting. You don’t want your students stressing simply to meet a page goal.
Remember that the main focus of literature circles is to have the actual discussion. This is not a simple feat. Students must have time to finish the reading goal, complete the work for the meeting, and learn and practice their speaking and listening skills. Here’s a freebie list of themes that may help with discussing theme in your literature circle meetings.
5. Consider quantity when selecting books for literature circles
Make sure you have enough books on hand to have at least two extra copies of each–believe me when I say that this will save you time and energy! Students will forget their books.
What do I do now?
Click here to grab this literature circles unit that I’ve developed from my classroom literature circles experiences. It includes everything you’ll need to run a literature circle session of any length. You’ll find a list of tried and true novels WITH the page break down for different meeting lengths AND…wait for it…THE READING LEVELS!! Many of the novels on the list are older. Chances are there are some of these on your campus just waiting to be rediscovered.
So use the many resources around you. Give yourself time to prepare. Don’t tell the class about the upcoming literature circles until you’ve secured your novels and your literature circle work packet. For more information on literature circles in the classroom, you might be interested in reading some of my other posts in this series Book Clubs in the Classroom. Find them HERE.
Pin this blog post to a relevant board for future reading.