Book discussions help learners use the L2 to process their understanding of a book and balance a variety of important goals in the language classroom: extensive reading, extensive listening, extensive speaking, extensive writing, independent learning, collaborative learning, and critical thinking. Literature circles provide stepping stones for speeding learners through Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and into Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency Skills (CALPS). It is important to realize that book club discussions are not Extensive Reading, but Extensive Learning.
Setting 1: Elementary or Pre-Intermediate Level
Different book discussions work well in groups of three students. Each student should read a book, complete an Mreader or xReading Quiz, and complete worksheet linked below. One of the strongest reasons to start with this approach is that teachers and students have only one worksheet to deal with. This allows for running different book discussions just once, or several times, but without the complex logistical planning involved with other discussion formats. Furthermore, if the students are simultaneously getting used to new learning management systems like in Mreader or xReading then a simple discussion format helps everyone get oriented.
Different Book Discussion Worksheet and Rubric
High Elementary and Pre-intermediate L2 learners are often experiencing extensive reading for the first time and thus, are unfamiliar with many issues regarding the selection of graded readers in their L2. This unfamiliarity with library resources, publishers, and levels of books appropriate for them can often be addressed well through the use of Different Book Discussions.
These learners are also not familiar with many basic metalinguistic words related to reading books. Words like author, publisher, main character, and summary are also unfamiliar, as are skills like finding interesting library books, completing paperwork or quizzes for ER, and so forth.
Both elementary and pre-intermediate learners also lack the attentional resources in the L2 to perform complex facilitation tasks involved in leading literature circle (LC) discussions, and thus, giving these learners scaffolding which helps order monologic contributions to a discussion will help them to channel attentional resources.
Finally, because elementary and pre-intermediate learners are often self-conscious and concerned about making mistakes involved with a task that has many new and mixed responsibilities, asking learners to use drawn sketches or diagrams to help others understand the characters and relationships in a story helps to lighten the mood and lessen anxiety. Teachers are often surprised at how effective this is for college students.
Teachers should help summarize findings from the whole class as to which publishers and levels are best for a given group of learners. Also, if students produced worksheets of poor quality, the teacher should conference with individual learners to help them see how to prepare better. Alternatively, the teacher can lift up great examples of worksheets at the end of discussions.
Setting 2: Same Book Discussions, Oxford Role-based System with Xreading Virtual Library system
A second approach to literature circles is to use some or all of the Oxford Bookworm Reading Group Role worksheets. Starting with just three of these role sheets is a good way to transition from Different Book Discussions to Same Book Discussions. The role sheets that might work best for first time, Same Book discussions are linked below:
Discussing the same book requires multiple copies of the same book at an appropriate reading level for all the learners. A virtual library system like xReading works well for English language learners. Such systems also provide short, simple quizzes that can verify that learners have completed reading the story before preparing the role sheet. Prepared learners will make be able to push their classmates' book comprehension and ability to articulate that comprehension further towards literal comprehension (not expert). I have combined Bell's (2015) arc of interpretation and Hillock and Ludlow's (1984) system into a meter that is added to the role sheet. It helps for the learners to know that their discussion should reflect an increasingly deeper understanding of the text in addition to merely "keeping a discussion going in English" for 20 or 30 minutes.
Setting 3: The Modified Oxford Bookworm System
Starting at the intermediate level, a system like that presented in the Oxford Bookworm Reading Circles system is appropriate for developing a wide range of L2 knowledge and skills. Implementing the system requires a strong commitment to training teachers in a student-centered methodology, and strong classroom management skills, the logistics and/or the lack of assurance of learning component will lead to it being a short-lived component of a program.
The theoretical core of the Oxford Bookworm Reading Circle methodology, first set out by Daniels (2002), aligns squarely with Communities of Practice learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991), as the pluralistic skills involved in different roles actually present an apprenticeship model of learning because learners, even in a "homogeneous" level, bring to bear varying levels of reading motivation, reading skill, self-efficacy for dialogic interaction, preparing and giving sustained monologic contributions in discussion, researching vocabulary meanings, and pronunciations, researching literary elements, developing various types of questions, and so forth.
Successfully adapting the Oxford discussion system starts with accepting some of Furr's (2004) principles. Since that system has been extensively described elsewhere, this document does not need to reiterate the basics, but rather, can explain some of the shortcomings and how to overcome these issues.
1. Logistics - In the first week of classes, it is helpful to give a short survey to determine each learner's reading motivation, homework dedication, and willingness to communicate, as well as who in each class is something of a "class clown". It is helpful, when making groups of five or six that will meet six times throughout the semester, to balance out the groups carefully. If you are interested in this survey, I can share the one I have created for this purpose with you. A second tool that makes organizing the schedule and role assignments easier over the semester is to use Google Forms, shared with all group members, so that learners can easily access the schedule, their roles, and the role-sheets they need to prepare for the discussions. Google Sheets can really simplify the classroom management issues!
Example: Eri's Group Schedule
2. There are many problems that learners encounter with each of the role assignments, so if you decide to attempt to use the Oxford system, you should also use a jigsaw approach to classroom management on each discussion day.
After groups have been made and the first reading assigned, and all the members arrive in class, go through the following pre-discussion routine. For example, let's say Eri's group is meeting on 4/21 for to discuss "The Black Cat". First the six members meet together and form a circle to make sure that they know whether everyone in their group is present and prepared.
Next, in most classes in Japan, there are at least 20 students, or approximately for of these groups like Eri's, so the next step is to take some time to work on skill building for each of the six roles. The best way to do this is to jigsaw, or move into specialized role groups. That is, have all four of the discussion leaders meet in one group, and all the summarizers meet together in a second group and so on. Creating six stations allows the strongest members in each role to coach the other members. With the teacher being well-prepared to discuss the reading at hand, a lot of improvements can be made. The teacher can also identify which students are completely unprepared for their roles and see who the leaders really are for that day's discussions. At this stage, it will be apparent that some learners may be absent as well, and so the teacher can help the discussion leaders to think about how to deal with extraneous facilitation challenges they face, such as having no summarizer, or no word master, that day. In time, leaders will be able to easily multi-task, but at first, they will not be comfortable with this. This time also allows the teacher to talk to the passage people about the importance of pivoting, for example, and to the Word Masters about how to pronounce all the main characters' names, or suggest key words they hadn't thought about. Working with the Connector/Culture Collectors on hypothetical question formation is also a useful task during this time.
Taking ten minutes for these role-specific meetings can allow for reducing the discussion time to about 20 minutes of very well-focused, meaningful discussion. At the end of the discussion, I recommend using a self-assessment rubric with an added blank space for a "question from the teacher".
Another important modification to the Oxford system is the importance of observation and feedback. Teachable moments will arise often enough that from my research, it is helpful to to have TAs or teachers sitting with groups from time to time (although TAs need to be trained in facilitation skills). To go one step further, multi-level discussion circles would also add great benefits to a learning community, so that the lower level students can observe the more complex facilitation skills that their sempai have learned over time. Japanese learners of English showed strong preference for teacher involvement in literature circle discussions, actually. That not being possible at all times, there is another factor to consider, and that is the improved performance by groups who are audio recorded. Learners should be taught to pass around an audio recorder and introduce themselves and their roles, and use the recorder like a mic. These audio files are quick to upload to a central location where learners can review their performance and listen to the discussions of other groups on the same book. Again, the use of shared Google folders or an LMS can enhance the learning between discussion sessions. An online location where the teacher can comment and lift up positive skills and preparation between sessions will create a powerful, blended learning environment (Schoonmaker, 2014).
Setting 4: Upper Intermediate English Learners
At the Upper-Intermediate level, students should have gained more confidence with conversation and dialogic formats. These learners still benefit greatly from using role-based scaffolding, but may be ready for more new roles and are ready to be challenged to perform other roles with greater skill. In this regard, the learners should be ready for more improvisational language production, and need particular help in developing more sophisticated question generation skills. These students are likely to continue depending upon yes/no questions, for example, rather than employing W-questions. They are still likely to produce one-off questions instead of using follow up questions, and they often do not use clarification questions, or question repetition. To deal with this problem, I developed a role called the "Unprepared Contributor". This learner is actually assigned to NOT READ the story before class, but rather, to prepare generic questions based upon knowledge of stylistics and literary elements for fiction stories, and generic questions about claims and evidence. Purposefully making a . learner "Unprepared" helps them to develop genuine, improvisational language skills for real life situations. If you look at the role sheet carefully, however, I have given these learners more work during and after the discussion as they should record the discussion and comment in an online group discussion about how it all went. (See the role sheet link below.)
These learners are likely also ready to start recognizing the themes in stories and thus make stronger connections between the text worlds of the story and those of the real world. For this reason, I suggest giving learners two readings to read and discuss--one literary fiction story, and one news story. Making a bridge from fiction to real world news helps learners to build "Theory of Mind". That is, they can read the thoughts of characters related to an issue, and also read about facts, and claims that are made in non-fiction news stories. In addition to this change, I suggest adding the new role sheet for the "Devil's Advocate." See the link below again. Showing these learners that making inferences about the meaning of language can often be controversial is helpful for teaching them to lead discussion. Simple claims like "I believe the narrator of this story is a young woman" can lead a discussion group into a round of close reading with lots of text references. Teaching the learners to make claims related to real world issues is also invigorating for discussion, and challenging the best of them to argue from the side opposite their own predisposition can be even more challenging.
To develop these ideas further take an example story. I adapted the story "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway to the Japanese context for younger, upper-intermediate learners. The original story is really for high advanced students in spite of the simple language due to the inferencing and implicature employed in the original. The original story deals with the issues of abortion and alcohol use. I wrote the adapted version for my children as the backstory of our cat, Kinako, that my daughter rescued from a local park. It turned out that our Kinako was pregnant when we took her in, and so we ended up raising seven kittens. Kinako is such a mellow cat though, so we have always believed that she grew up in a loving family and not merely in the wild. Anyways, the attached story is an exploration of a number of issues related to grading literature, but more than this, it is an exploration of discussion and Theory of Mind, as the the main character, Nozomi, has to stand up to her father in my adaptation, and thus is modeling a much more assertive use of language than the passive character in Hemingway's original. This story should help to introduce the ideas involved with both the "Unprepared Contributor" role and the "Devil's Advocate" role.
Setting 5: Advanced Learners (Preparing for Debate)