What are Reading Circles and how do they work?


GroupsAt Read Listen Learn we believe that reading circles can help to encourage EFL and ESOL students to read and to get more from the experience and we're developing resources to work alongside our graded readers with this mind. Here's some background about how Reading Circles developed and how they work.

Reading Circles were first used by an American teacher and researcher in Chicago in the 1980s, called Harvey Daniels. He was not working with EFL students who knew English as their second language (L2) but with native users for whom English was their mother tongue (L1).

Daniels decided to respond to students' dislike of reading at secondary school. He had noted that teenagers often described 'reading lessons' as their least favourite and most difficult classes for improving their language. Daniels, as a good educator, of course, wanted students to get the same pleasure and benefit out of reading as he did. He reckoned the best way of going about this was to develop 'literature circles'. After all, for centuries people had been getting together to talk about what they were reading, whether this was in academic societies or neighbourhood book clubs.

Suddenly, meeting with friends to talk honestly about books - to be able to say that this or that author was dull or patronising, while another was invigorating, regardless of their reputations - was refreshing. It was a very different experience from having to hold the same 'right' opinion as the teacher in the classroom.

Daniels gave some guiding principles for these reading groups, slightly adapted here to bear in mind the different scenario for L2 learners...

  1. Groups should be small and temporary, based on the text the students are reading - no more than four or five per group. (You might, as their teacher, want to ensure that there are one or two confident people in each group.)
  2. Different groups read different texts so that they can encourage or discourage others to pick the text up after they have moved on to another.
  3. Students select the text they want to read, but according to their linguistic level.
  4. Groups should meet on a regular basis at predictable times to establish routine.
  5. Students should use written notes to guide both their reading and their discussion, so that each of them is coming at the story from a different perspective. They need to make notes in English to guide their discussions before these take place.
  6. The discussion topics should come from the students themselves. Reading groups are not just a replication of standard English classes, where the teacher controls the direction of the class. The notes the teacher has provided should guide them to be able to do this.
  7. The reading groups should be natural, honest conversations, without there being right and wrong answers to the topics.
  8. Teachers should step back and allow the reading groups' conversations to move in any direction in which the participants wish them to develop.
  9. The reading groups should be fun. There's no problem with a lot of noise or jokes. They are to be encouraged.

For more information, see Daniels, H. (2002): 'Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups' (Portland, ME: Stenhouse).

For an EFL perspective, you can read more at...

  • Furr, M. (2011): 'Reading Circles'
  • Day, et al. (2011): 'Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom' (Oxford: OUP).