Literature Circles in the Middle Grades

Hello Friends! This is Erin from I'm Lovin' Lit. I'm here to share how I run literature circles in my middle school classroom.

I'm going to cheat a little bit here and link up with my own linky party, Thursday Throw Down.

Thursday Throw Down is a link up that I host on the first Thursday of each month. Be sure to come and read about all the ways teachers are making their lessons more interactive. This year's interactive literature circles are about as interactive as it gets!

After doing literature circles for a few years and in a few different ways, I decided to do an interactive version this year. Of course, literature circles are, by nature, very interactive. Students are interacting constantly with their classmates and with the literature. But I wanted to throw the “interactive notebook” element in there. I found that, overall, my students took more pride in their weekly role work and did better work to go along with it. I like to give each group a binder or folder that contains all of the handouts they’ll need for the entire unit so that they can be self-sufficient.

How I Manage Literature Circles

1Book Selection
2. Quizzes (YES, quizzes!)
3. Role Assignments & Work
4. The Actual Reading
5. Group Meetings
6. Student Choice

1 – Book Selection
I’d love to tell you that I pour through books, comparing their literary value and choosing only the best of the best for my literature circles. Unfortunately, I live in the real world. The books you’ll find in my literature circle selection were found
     a) as bargains ($1-$2) in the Scholastic Book Clubs brochure
     b) on the clearance shelf at Books-a-Million
     c) in my classroom closet as a former class novel (from a past teacher)
     d) as online specials on eBay, Amazon, etc.
     e) purchased used from

Here are some books that have worked well for my literature circles in the past:
6th Grade (3-Week Lit Circles) – Number the Stars, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, Rules, My Life As a Book, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit
7th Grade (4-Week Lit Circles) – I Am David, The Eleventh Plague, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie, Rules of Survival, Trouble
Throughout the year, I keep my eyes open for books I can purchase 8-12 of cheaply for possible literature circle books to expand my choices. When planning a round of literature circles, I try to give students 5-6 different choices with a variety of genres and topics, and I try to keep them all about the same length. I look up their AR point values at and try to keep them within a point or two of each other.

Once I select a book, I have to make sure I have enough copies that each student can have his own. This is crucial, because if a student is absent, he’ll need a book to catch up with. I assign certain sections to be read on certain days (more on that in a bit), and to hold the students accountable for this, each student MUST have his own copy of the book. He MUST be able to bring it home at any time. The students also need to be able to use sticky notes throughout their book without interfering with someone else’s notes.

Oh, and of course, it MUST be a book that I have read. This one is non-negotiable. I have seen teachers assign and teach books they haven’t read themselves. Crazy. I can’t even wrap my head around that!

2 – Quizzes (YES, quizzes!)
Let’s be honest here. In everything I’ve ever read about literature circles, be it from the experts or other teachers, I have never seen a quiz component. Never. And I totally don’t get it. But, I trusted it the first time I did literature circles and didn’t quiz the students. I *know* that some students rushed through the book without comprehending half of what they needed to, realizing there wasn’t a real quiz coming up. So, because I can’t stand this sort of thing, I take the hours and hours of time to comb through all of these books and make quizzes for each week of reading. So, this means 3 or 4 quizzes for each book. These quizzes are closed book and literal comprehension only. They’re not higher order thinking for sure, but they’re nearly impossible to pass without reading. I tell my students that if they read the selection, they should make 100 easy. These quizzes are fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice, true/false, and typically 8-10 questions. That’s just enough to make them accountable. This raised level of individual accountability makes me feel so much better about the lack of control while the literature circles are going. If you don’t have the upfront time to make all those quizzes, consider “pop-quizzing” one group per week or give one discussion question to each group that requires extensive knowledge of the section to answer.

3 – Role Assignments & Work
I put a lot of thought into my role assignments. First, I had to make up my mind as to how many students I wanted in a group. I typically prefer groups of 2 or 3 that force more participation and I never like to go over 4. So, my literature circles almost never have more than 4 participants. Of course, every now and then I end up with an odd man out, but I try to avoid it. For that reason, I have a back-up role that can be canned when not used or done by the entire group as they read the book. Each week, the students know what their role is, and it's their responsibility to retrieve their role sheets (and cheat sheets, examples, etc.) from their group's binder, read through all of the material, and work on it independently after that week's reading. I'm very explicit about what I expect so that I can expect students to do it right. Every. Time.

Here are the roles I use:
Discussion Director
Word Wizard
Passage Picker
Character Sketcher
Figurative Language Finder (extra optional one for the odd man out)

Each student has his own bookmark that I make and distribute. The front of the bookmark (below) contains a schedule that details what is done on what days, including which page numbers to read, when work is due, when quizzes are and over which chapters, and when the group meetings are held. The back of the bookmark (right) contains the students role schedule. I decide who is what role for each week, in advance. I do this so that I can assign stronger leaders to be the Discussion Director first, and weaker leaders to go after they’ve been comfortable with their groups and can fall back on other students’ examples.

Next up is what I call “Role Sheets.” Students pull these out of their group’s binder or folder at the start of each new week so that they know what their assignment is before they begin their reading. I’m VERY specific as to what I want, and I include cheat sheets or examples for the students so that  I can expect the work to be done correctly and independently every time.

4 – The Actual Reading
When we first start literature circles, I require that students read aloud with their groups. They don’t all have to read aloud if they don’t want to – I tell them to work it out amongst themselves and I’ve never had a problem with that. They read together and I notice them pausing to discuss when needed. I ALWAYS start off reading out loud for those students who have a really hard time getting started with a book. Once they’ve read about ¼ of the book, or during week 2, I’ll make at least one day’s section silent independent reading. After I’ve done a little bit of both, usually by week 3, each group can choose their method of reading. Some choose to read out loud and others choose to read independently. Occasionally, two members of a group will read aloud together while the other two read silently. The students like this aspect of the freedom that they earn. They can sit in desks facing each other, on the floor, or a combination of the two, as long as they are facing each other. To each his own, right?
Also, I dictate which pages are read on what days. If a group doesn’t finish their section for the day, it’s homework. If a student is absent, he is expected to catch up to his group. The bookmark students keep with the schedule indicates the days and page numbers. I plan all of this out ahead of time. Basically, if I’m running a 4-week literature circle, I’ll divide the book into quarters and try to end each week’s reading with the end of a chapter.

5 – Group Meetings
Again, one of the things I learned the hard way was that group meetings need to be very structured, almost to the point of being scripted. So, I went ahead and wrote a basic script for the discussion leader to follow and put it right on his role sheet. You see, this is the way I can do literature circles and still maintain my sanity. Group meetings are once per week and typically on Fridays. Only after the group meetings do I collect the students’ work for the week and grade it. The students have rubrics for all of the roles ahead of time.

6 – Student Choice
Student choice is one of the most important aspects of literature circles. I try to give my students 5-6 books to choose from. One day, a few weeks before we start literature circles, I’ll book talk all of the books and ask students to write down their top 3 choices. Then, I’ll also ask them to write down any books that they’ve already read AND which book from the list they hope they NEVER read. I’ve always been able to group them according to one of their three choices. Sometimes I make decisions and give a kid his second choice because I know him as a reader and think he’d prefer it, especially if it works for grouping. Sometimes I’ll give a kid his second or third choice if the first choice is really too difficult or really not challenging enough. And, I make sure to get their choices well in advance so that I have time to organize the groups, make the bookmarks, and find additional copies of books if needed.
The way I run literature circles takes some planning time in advance, but once they start in class, it’s beautiful to see how they run themselves! I love how the students are so much more active in their learning, how the directors just seem to take control when they are supposed to, and how the students get to choose which aspects of the book to emphasize and discuss with their groups. And doing it my way, I’m still in control. I like to plan literature circles to follow testing and Spring Break and time them so that they end right when it’s final review time. This keeps me from doing my traditional “pay attention to me!” lessons right up to the very end. It’s the perfect time for ALL of us.


  1. I hear you about the quizzes. I ALWAYS give my students a quiz over every single chapter and then at the end of the book I also give a whole book test. Almost all of my literature circle books come from the Scholastic $1 books. I do almost everything you do, but I'm one of those dreaded teacher who assigns my students books I haven't read ahead of time. I do read the book with my students, but unfortunately since this is my first year back in regular education I just don't have time to read the books ahead of the students.

  2. Quizzes definitely hold the students accountable. I'm going to reread this post a few times. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Erin,
    I went to a Lit Circles training about a yr ago. I loved the concept, but we simply don't have the books at school. I tried it with Charlotte's Web after testing but it wasn't really successful. I thought it might have had something to do with the age of my 3rd graders. I wasn't sure that they could handle all of the freedom involved. I love how you structured your circles. I can definitely see this working in Upper Elem/Middle School/High School. Do you spend the whole class doing this or is it a shorter part of your class??


  4. I agree 100% that it needs to be books the teacher has read - how else can you really assess their understanding and connections. I love how you structure your circles - thanks for sharing how this works for you : )