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Reading Circles Get Students to Do the Reading

In my course, the required reading is intensive and extensive. Students must read multiple texts that range across disciplines, genres, history, and culture. The goal of this interdisciplinary course is improvement of critical reading, writing, and thinking skills. My students, like many others, live complicated lives. Add to that the fact that many are not particularly good readers or people who like to read, and the result is students arriving in class not having done the reading. When that happens, the teacher becomes the best student in the room. She talks about the text while students dutifully listen—or appear to listen.

The findings from the reading compliance research have remained consistent over the years. Hobson reports (in IDEA Paper No. 40, published by Kansas State University) that on any given day and for any given assignment, 20 to 30 percent of the students have done the reading. He writes, “Faculty face the stark and depressing challenge of facilitating learning when over 70% of the students will not have read the assigned readings.” When students don’t do the reading, they hear about the text, but they do not actually experience it or do anything that develops their reading skills.

Given these realities, I decided to revisit Literature Circles, first introduced in the mid-1990s by Harvey Daniels for grades 3 through 8 in Chicago and described as small, peer-led discussion groups whose members have chosen to read the same text. Basic educators have found them enormously successful. I wondered whether they might work in my undergraduate course. Since not all the reading in my course is literature, I decided to call them Reading Circles.

I told my students that the success of their Reading Circle depended on two things: everyone coming prepared by having read the assignment and everyone participating. In my humanities course, the four texts are traditionally chosen by the teacher, but wanting to be student-centered, I decided to let the students choose two of the texts. Annotated bibliographies were distributed early to help students make informed choices. I formed the groups based on their choice of text. In some cases, two groups needed to be formed, as I limited group size to six, given the roles I wanted students to fill in the groups:

I gave students the rubric I used when evaluating how well they filled their roles. When I joined a Reading Circle I did so as an observer and guide, not as a teacher or participant. Each circle made a 20-minute presentation of one significant aspect of their text in any way they chose. There have been dialogues, interviews, plays, speeches, and debates. The structure of the activity can be adapted to fit a variety of reading assignments.

After a semester of using this technique, overwhelmingly my students reported that the activity “greatly impacted” their learning. On average, with four sections students self-reported their reading compliance rate to be 38 percent in an ESL section and 55 percent in my three other sections. After the activity, students reported a rise to 66 percent in compliance in the ESL section and 85 percent on average in the other sections.

Reading Circles empower students by letting them choose what they read. The assigned roles give them a purpose to read. They gain self-confidence as they learn to be responsible for their learning. Their reading skills develop. They have experience presenting their ideas. And they discover the joy of working with others to understand textual material. For me, observing the students at work in these groups was immensely satisfying. My students were in class having done the reading.

Jane Gee teaches at Temple University, College of Liberal Arts.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.1 (2013): 6. © Magna Publications