McClatchy Elementary School, Midlothian, Texas
A second-grade class in Midlothian, Texas, combines literature circles and digital formats to better develop young readers.
While doing research for her master’s degree, McClatchy Elementary School teacher Lauren Benner had read extensively about how literature circles have been employed successfully in secondary education. However, she could find little about the practice being used on the elementary level, despite evidence extolling the benefits of digital books over traditional print for younger children.
“I saw just so much research about how kids are engaged when they read digitally,” says Benner, who brought the approach to her initial class of 21 second-graders in the 1-to-1 district.
Benner began the literature circles in the 2016-17 school year with a few mini-lessons. As the students grew in their ability to work independently, circle sessions were increased, eventually reaching twice per week for up to an hour each time.
Each circle comprises four to five students, grouped together by academic ability and reading level. “If the group gets too big, they can lose focus sometimes,” says Benner. “I realized if I could keep it smaller, we could really dig deeper into the text.”
Students choose the texts, which range from picture books to early chapter books for more advanced groups. Students read the stories, then analyze the text together and individually compose questions, which are put into a shared Google document. Students gather in a circle to view the document and discuss their questions. They also share discussion notes on their tablets, powered by Intel Core processors.
“I used to sit all the kids on the carpet, I’d read them a story, I’d ask the questions, and they’d answer. And I was like, ‘Oh, they’re comprehending the story, they’re answering the questions,’” says Benner. “But it’s a different kind of comprehension when they can generate their own questions.”
Initially questions were basic: “Who are the main characters? Where does the story take place?” As the students progressed, so did the discussion. Benner modeled higher-order questions such as “What do you think happened after the story?” and “If you could write a different ending, what would it be?”
“For 7- and 8-year-olds, the level of critical thinking was way beyond what I would have expected, especially when they were able to come up with the questions on their own,” says Benner.
Benner worried initially that students would be distracted by their tablets, which many students equate with games. Once discussions started, however, that concern dissipated. “I just stepped back and let them go,” she says. “I would just walk around and listen. They were great about being respectful to each other. They were saying, ‘I really liked your question,’ or ‘That was a great response.’”
In addition to sharing questions and notes, students will also occasionally draw summaries of stories.
Benner has led PD for other second-grade teachers, who are starting to implement literacy circles into their classrooms across the district. Benner now has 42 students participating at her school.
By the end of the last academic year, students had shown improvement in reading levels and scored higher in comprehension. Compared to previous years, students now make text-to-text connections, including to other stories they have read and even to events that have occurred in class or at home, Brenner says.
“Seeing them make those connections beyond the book is really fun,” she adds. “It’s my favorite part of teaching.”