Magazine article Distance Learning

Using Literature Circles to Provide Support for Online Discussions

Magazine article Distance Learning

Using Literature Circles to Provide Support for Online Discussions

Article excerpt


Engaging students in virtual discussions about reading materials for a course or workshop can be challenging, especially when content is dense and difficult to comprehend. However, as noted in previous Ends and Means columns, successful online discussions usually occur when expectations are fully outlined (Milman, 2008) and good questions are crafted (Milman, 2009a) to foster thoughtful discussion. Other approaches can also be applied to promote meaningful discussions in online environments, as well as to differentiate instruction (Milman, 2009b). One such strategy is the "literature circle," a strategy originally developed for use with elementary students but increasingly applied in K-12 and higher education settings. This article shares what literature circles are and how this strategy can be applied in online environments.


Literature circles (Daniels, 1994; Daniels & Steineke, 2004) are small, temporary discussion groups comprised of learners who have read the same piece of literature but who have different roles and responsibilities. In literature circles, instructors plan and facilitate the learning structure, including student roles, whereas learners share perceptions, interpretations, and questions about the literature they have read. Learners in a literature circle read the same material, but each group member has a different role and responsibility to communicate their learning about the material. When learners have completed the tasks associated with their roles, they meet to share their insights with their group members.

There are many different roles that learners might have in a literature circle. Some examples are:

* Discussion Facilitator: This individual crafts the questions for discussion about the reading and facilitates the discussion.

* Connector: The connector's role is to identify similarities, differences, and relationships of the reading to other readings and/or experiences within the course or workshop.

* Illustrator: This person presents the material using some type of graphic organizer (e.g., Venn diagram) or drawing.

* Vocabulary Expert: This individual's role is to develop a list of important new vocabulary words and definitions found in the reading.

* Summarizer: This person summarizes the material and the discussion.

Each role enables learners to examine the reading material (e.g., text chapter, article) from a different perspective or set of "lenses" and comes with an associated task to complete. Although these roles are commonly used in literature circles, instructors have the freedom to develop other roles based on learner and course needs, as well as to assign more than one student to a role (e.g., there could be two discussion facilitators in a group).

Learners and instructors benefit from literature circles in numerous ways. During literature circles, learners work together to share their insights with one another. They increase their comprehension of readings while also building collaborative skills. From working together doing interdependent activities, learners can also develop a community around authentic and meaningful work. Peer accountability not only encourages learners to do their work, but often improves its quality.


Although literature circles are effective in traditional learning environments, the strategy can also be implemented well in online learning environments. Just as many online courses incorporate discussion boards, these can also be utilized for sharing and presenting the work done by different group members. For example, the vocabulary expert might share a list of words and definitions as a file attachment to an online posting. …

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