Using Literature Study Groups to Construct Meaning in an Undergraduate Reading Course

Article excerpt

What Are Literature Study Groups?

In this article, I examine the effectiveness of adding a literature study group component to an undergraduate reading course. The use of literature study groups as an instructional strategy is a relatively new practice. This method, a reading approach or instructional strategy developed in the late 1980s, emphasizes collaborative reading and discussing of self-selected, unabridged, unexcerpted children's literature (Edelsky, 1988; Eeds & Wells, 1989; Peterson & Eeds, 1990) with school-age children. Although literature study groups may be known by other names such as lit sets or literature circles, the idea is the same (Gilles, 1989). Presented with an array of books, students choose a first or second choice to read. With the instructor acting as a facilitator and participant, small groups (usually four to seven students) are formed. The students in a given group read the same book and periodically meet together to discuss both the book and their responses and reactions, often recorded in a log or journal. As a culminating project, the groups of readers frequently create ways to share or extend the book with their classmates.

The strategy of implementing literature study groups is rooted in the transactional theory of literature (Rosenblatt, 1991), suggesting that the interpretations participants bring into their literature study groups are the result of a transactional process in which readers both bring meaning to and take meaning from a text (Peterson & Eeds, 1990). Readers develop a broader understanding of what they read as they interact with themselves, the book, and the teacher in an ongoing dialogue. Watson (1996) notes that literature study groups include all the language modes: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Personal transactions are strengthened through these modalities; as one student put it, there is more to remember when you read a book as part of a literature study group (Watson, 1996).

Essential elements of literature study groups include self-selection of books, which promotes heterogeneous grouping; self-pacing and agenda setting; group meetings for discussion; student-posed rather than teacher-imposed questions; and celebrations or sharing of the book. Most literature study groups for children revolve around fictional works, although some groups may move into text sets in which several genres of books are read including fiction, nonfiction, and poetic works (e.g., many different genres of books featuring wolves).

Wanting undergraduates to become acquainted with professional books that are not textbooks, I modified the original concept of using fictional works in literature study groups to invite participants to read nonfiction, professional books exploring issues related to literacy.

Prerequisites of the Books Chosen

The main criteria I used were based on Peterson and Eeds's (1990) Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action, in which they state that books selected for literature study groups must not only be good books, but they must be grand books that engender conversation. In my search for professional books to offer as choices, I established the following criteria:

* The books must contain many connections to reality rather than long diatribes on theory. For this course, I wanted books to show obstacles or barriers to literacy rather than tell about them.

* Books addressing controversial issues would be better because the participants could try to sort out the issues with the help of their group. Books that tend to need other readers would be desirable so that the sole reader might talk through and sort out the messages or connections within the book. I chose books that need other readers for discussion.

* Books that allow the reader an emotional connection to the characters are essential. Although these books would be nonfiction professional works, I wanted the books to read more like a novel. …