Literature Circle Strategies for High School Classrooms

Literature Circle Strategies

for High School Classrooms

Integrating Writing Strategies with Literature Circles

Thousands of books are available as choices for literature circles. Developing a variety of literature circle activity folders can be overwhelming unless the teacher has a bank of generic writing ideas that will work with a wide range of novels. Here is bank of writing activities that will work for many literature circles.

1. Daily Journal Sheets: that chart the progress and critical thinking of the small group and its members. All groups complete these with every book. (See attached "role" sheets)

2. Wordsplash: to introduce a work to students. After small groups speculate on the reason those particular words appear together, ask them to predict the story that the words might tell (1 side, 1 page). You can also ask a literature circle group to design a wordsplash for the NEXT literature circle that will read this novel.

3. Mandalas: after students read a story, chapter, poem, or novel, ask them to draw a picture that represents the images and feelings and characters of what they just read on a circular piece of paper. Do this before discussion. Often times, this activity will help students to crystallize their thoughts on a piece. After drawing, ask them to write just one sentence explaining the drawing. After small group sharing of the drawings, ask them to write 7 sentences explaining the story and its significance. Fran Claggett's book Drawing Your Own Conclusions, explains this strategy in great detail. This is a first step of that strategy

4. Main Idea or Theme Posters: Ask each small group of readers to choose the main ideas and events of the novel they are reading. My favorite time for using this activity is the middle of a long novel or about 3/4 of the way through a novel when you want to make sure all the students are "caught up" in their understanding of the novel. On the high school level, I might ask for 20-25 of the most important events that have happened so far. What constitutes "important"? Each group of students must decide.

I then ask the students to choose 2-3 images of symbols that represent the book and to make stencils of these images. For example, apples and milk bottles for Animal Farm and loaves of French bread and silver candlesticks for Les Miserables or spider webs and barns for Charlotte's Web.

Using the stencils, the students then draw 20-25 shapes on construction paper, cut them out, and list the important novel events on the shapes. The shapes are then attached to the poster (in order of occurence).Reading group members individually write an explanation of the poster its events. The posters are presented to the class and then hung on the walls.

5. Pair/Share Journals: To keep variety in the classroom, I sometimes ask students in one literature circle to share their journals with another literature circle in the class. This allows the different groups to compare and comment on each other's findings and discussions. It also allows me, as the teacher, from occasionally NOT having to read each and every student's journal. I am able to collect any comment on them a few times less a quarter.

6. Occasional Thought Letters: This writing is longer than a journal entry (which often take about 15 minutes to write) yet shorter and simpler than a formal essay. It takes about an hour to write and could be 1 page typed single-spaced. The student is able to write about an entire week's work in the literature circle or class and reflect on the "whole" of the week. I ask students to explain the most significant, problematic, exhilarating points we discussed or strategies we tried.

7. Dialectical Journal: Students write one or two significant quotes on the left hand side of their journal page. On the right hand side, the students then remark or comment or explain or question the quotes. This allows the students to grapple with the meaning of the passages.

8. Found Poetry: I ask the students to find a passage in the novel and to compose a "found poem" using the passage's exact words. Sometimes I offer a group of passages for the students to choose from.

9. Time Line: Ask students to tape 2 or 3 pieces of notebook paper together and to draw a line across the taped pages in readiness for a time line. Then ask students to write about positive characters and events on the TOP of the time line and about negative characters or events BELOW the time line. After this is completed, ask the students to circle the one most positive event and the one most negative event that has occurred in the story and to write about them. Share within the group and add the writing to the journals.

10. Internet Research Project: If each literature circle is reading a different novel, I usually made a reference folder for each group. The folder contains journal prompts, discussion questions, some kind of a "hands-on" related research activity (making braided Jewish challah bread for the novel THE CHOSEN or taffy for one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, for example), and a simple research project for the group which is often internet-based. Joe DiMaggio died right before one of my literature circle groups read THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA one spring. Since Joe is mentioned as the hero of the main character in the novel, I asked that literature circle group to research who Joe DiMagggio was, why he would have been someone's hero, and to write a speech about him that might have been given at his recent memorial service or published in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

11. Homemade Cliff Notes: Students who know each other well and have experience with literature circle enjoy this activity. Each literature circle group is asked to write a self-styled "Cliffs Notes" for their novel. I usually assign this for a novel that has no actual Cliffs Notes. Students write chapter by chapter discussion questions, quizzes, vocabulary lists and activities, maps, and test banks. If time allows, they can also write character descriptions, setting explanations, and theme presentations. My high schoolers type these up and often add a colorful cover in yellow and black ala the real Cliffs. If the entire class of literature circles is reading the same novel, I split the Homemade Cliff Notes into chapters and assign each literature circle a different chapter.

12. Food, the Book, and Writing: Ever had that class that meets right before the late lunch period? They can be ingenious about getting food into the class. Several years ago, my AP Language class was reading an contrast/comparison essay about gumbo. After reading the light-hearted essay, they decided to research various gumbo recipes, select 5 to make for class, and bring them in to school. After a wonderfully smelling morning with crock pots cooking in my class, we taste-tested the many gumbos and wrote our own compare and contrast essays on our very own gumbos. Would work well for literature groups, especially for the classes meeting later in the day.

13. Journals with Secondary Character Perspective: I often ask literature circles to write a journal entry from a secondary character's perspective 2 or 3 times during the course of their reading and then to share their entries with group members.

14. Journal Headlines: Write a headline for a particular section of the book . Example-- "Bear House Vandalized."

15. Letter-Writing between Two Characters: Students can write imaginary letters between two characters. This works well if different literature circles are working on the same novel. Each group writes a letter for a particular character and sends it to the "character" in another literature circle.

16. Telegrams: Students can write telegrams of urgency from one character to another. Of course, cost must be taken into consideration. Every word or letter costs so much money. Class can decide before hand how much money each character has to spend on a telegram. Groups then draw character names out of a hat and must compose a message within that character's telegram "budget."

17. Editorials: Students can write an editorial on an issue that a book introduces or write an editorial from the perspective of a character keeping the novel's setting and the character's knowledge in mind.

18. Life-Lines Project: Students collect quotations from each book/poem/play/short story they read all year long in their journals. At the end of the semester and at the year, they look over the list of quotes and decide why this group of quotations is significant. (formal essay assignment).

19. Important Character Quotes: Students collect important character quotes as they read through a novel. Afterwards, they examine the list and write about what these quotes together reveal about the character.

20. Yearbook Snapshots of Characters: Students assemble "yearbook snapshots" of various characters in a novel. They must decide on the following:

  • nickname
  • activities, clubs, sports, (and what years they participated)
  • quotation that character chose that shows something about him and what is important to him/her
  • favorite music/hobbies (must be consistent with setting)
  • book that has had greatest impact on this character
  • voted "most likely to......." by his/her class
  • character's plan after high school

Students must then find or draw a picture of their conception of the character (magazines offer help and so do computer clip art programs). They mount the picture on white paper with the information underneath

21. Advertisement: Students write an advertisement for a particular character from the character's point-of-view. Examples might include Charlotte in CHARLOTTE'S WEB offering her spider babies for adoption, Chillingsworth in SCARLET LETTER might advertise his healing herbs, or a soldier in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT advertising his need for waterproof boots.

22. Alphabet Scheme: Divide up the letters of the alphabet between your group members. For each of the letters, choose something from the book that starts with that letter. This can be a person, place, or thing. Then, write a brief explanation as to what the significance of this person, place, or thing was to the story. Put only one letter per page, but make them two-sided pages so it will read like a book. Add drawings/artwork on each page, or find passages from the book to quote and attach. Type these. Make a cover for the book and bind it together.

  • A is for...............
  • B is for...............

23. Creating a Childhood for a Character: Students are asked to create a believable childhood for a particular character in a novel. For example, students might devise a childhood for David Copperfield's cruel step-father Mr. Murdstone or a childhood for Jocasta of OEDIPUS REX.

24. Poetry Collection: Create a collection of poems relating to characters and incidents in your book. Each poem must be accompanied by an explanation of its applicability to the novel. Everyone in your group must write or collect two poems. Together, create a cover and back for your collection and bind the poems within it. Be creative in your cover design and material you use to make it out of. Possible poetic forms for you to choose are: "I Am Poem" (as one of the characters, a "found poem" (see #13), an acrostic poem based on the title of the book, and miscellaneous rhyming and free verse poems. You can use published poems that relate to your novel, also. Please type all poems.

25. CD Cover: Using an actual CD clear plastic cover, please design a cover of a CD for your novel. On the inside of the CD case, write a list of songs which will "tell the story" of your novel. This song listing should fit inside the plastic case. Please add another sheet (or sheets) which explain why these particular songs reflect the themes, settings, events, and characters of the novel. You may also add the lyrics to each song.

26. Obituary for a Character: Students can write an obituary for a character who dies in the novel or a character who has died before the novel "began." See attached obituary written about Gregor in Kafka's Metamorphosis.

27. “To Do” List for a Character: I have had some success asking my student's to create "to do" lists for the characters in the story, usually as a review at the end of a section. The list should contain three or four items, going from general to fairy specific, until the last item makes it clear -- for those who read -- who wrote the list.

List 1

  • Buy dog food
  • Look for new way home from school
  • Buy red shoe polish
  • Check on tornado insurance for Aunt Em

List 2

  • Buy pipe tobacco
  • Tune violin
  • Make appointment with Dr. Watson

Want more sources of writing strategies?

  • Search for internet web sites that mention the name of novels on your literature circle list. Thousands of teachers are now posting literature units on the web for everyone to use.
  • Check out the professional resources listed on the last page of this handout. Most offer even more ideas for integrating writing with literature circles.

Storybooks that Work in Literature Circles
for Middle and High School

  • All Those Secrets of the World by Jane Yolen
  • Barefoot by Pamela Edwards
  • Black and White by David Macauley
  • Dr. Mr. Blueberry by Simon Jones
  • Faithful Elephants by Yukio Tsychiya
  • Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting
  • Golem by David Wiesnieski
  • Guess Who My Favorite Person Is by Byrd Baylor
  • House on Pooh Corner (last chapter) by A.A. Milne
  • Jumangi by George Spelvin
  • Letting the Swift River go by Jane Yolen
  • Ming Lo Moves the Mountain by Arnold Lobel
  • Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Night Driving by Coy
  • Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
  • Seven Blind Mice by Ed Young
  • Smoky Nights by Eve Bunting
  • Someday by Charlotte Zolotow
  • Something from Nothing by Phoebe Gilman
  • The Keeping Quilt by Poloco
  • The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka
  • The Wretched Stone by Chris Van Allsburg
  • This Quiet Lady by Zolotow
  • To Climb a Waterfall by Jean Craighead George
  • Toot and Puddle by Holly Hobbie
  • Two Bad Ants by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Uncle Jed's Barbershop by Margaret King Mitchell
  • We are Down in the Dumps with Jack and Guy by Maurice Sendak
  • When I Was Young in the Mountains by Rylant
  • Zoom by Banyai

Not all of these titles still frequent book stores although most can be ordered on the internet through Check area libraries for these picture books.

Professional Resources for More Information

Draw Your Own Ccnclusions by Fran Claggett, Heinemann Publishers, 1992.

Claggett, a frequent visitor at Florida Writing Projects, introduces the concept of graphic representations as effective precursors to the writing process. Explains in detail how the mandala student-made graphics encourage higher level thinking, focus reading comprehension, and serve as writing stimuli.

Measure of Success by Fran Claggett, Heinemann Publishers, 1996.

Claggett presents alternative assessment ideas for language arts classes and explains current theory on assessment in understandable terms.

Literature Circles: Voice and Change in the Student Centered Classroom by Harvey Daniels, Stenhouse Publishers, 1994.

The benchmark publication for effective use of literature circles. Aimed at the elementary level but easily adaptable to K-College. The "role" sheets from this workshop packet are adaptations of Daniels' work. Presents clear and extensively drawn literature circle roles for each student involved.

Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean, Jossey Bass Publishers, 1996.

Bean boils down the complex theories of the reading-writing connection into understandable language and offers classroom friendly, practical ways to encourage writing across the curriculum which ultimately yields higher levels of critical thinking in students.

Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing as a Process at the High School and College Levels compiled by Carol Booth Olson, California Dept. of Education (Publishers), 1997.

A collection of practical, exciting writing strategies to use in middle and high school.

"Reader-Response Theory and the English Curriculum" by Robert Probst, published in The English Journal, March 1994.

Probst explains Louise Rosenblatt's theories on reader-response in this easily understood article. If you don't understand reader-response yet, read this.

"Teaching Ideas: While Reading the Literature" by Diana Mitchell, published in The English Journal, September 1995.

A collection of various ideas to integrate writing with literature studies.


A special thanks to the teachers of the National Council for the Teachers of English Internet List-Serv and the College Board Advanced Placement English Teacher Internet List-Serv for their ideas and support as I experimented with literature circles over the past several years, especially: Bonnie Dodge (Iowa), Nancy Patterson (Michigan), Skip Nicholson (California), Gloria Pipkin and Conni Shelnut (Florida), Katie Brown (Tennessee), and Mary Kirkpatrick (Texas).

Have a question? Ask it now.