MAT Blog

Literature Circles: A Student-Centered Approach to Literacy

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 17, 2014 3:09:00 PM


Why do our students come to school? Yes, yes, of course because they have to, but why else? Is it because of you? Is it because of the mind-bending lectures we give? If you asked Michael Kahn (see his article, “The Seminar”) these questions, he’d tell you that there’s nothing intrinsically special about us or the textbooks.

No, what makes coming to school “worth it” for Kahn is the collaborative learning experience—or in his words, the “opportunity [for students] to engage in a fantastic dialogue, trialogue, multilogue with a fantastically varied assortment of consciousnesses.”

There are countless ways we can get students working together, talking and learning from one another, but literature circles are certainly one of the most effective. Not only do they encourage open dialogue, creativity and critical thinking, they also push students to take ownership of their own learning experience.

What are literature circles?
When we use literature circles, small groups of students gather for an in-depth discussion of a literary work. To ensure that students have a clear sense of direction and remain focused, each group member is given a specific task. For example, one student may be the designated artist; s/he is responsible for using some form of art to explore a main idea, a theme, or significant scene from the text. Another group member, the wordsmith, might be responsible for documenting important, unusual, or difficult words from the reading. Regardless of each student’s role, each group must collaborate as they read, discuss and critically engage with texts.

The circles meet regularly, and the discussion roles change at each meeting. When the circle finishes a book, the members decide on a way to showcase their literary work for the rest of the class.

To give you a better sense of what literature circles are—and aren’t—take a look at the following chart from Bonnie Campbell Hill’s guide, Literature Circles and Response:


What is the teacher’s role in literature circles?
As Harvey Daniels explains in his book Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups, “the teacher’s main job in literature circles is to not teach.” Instead, teachers use mini-lessons, debriefing sessions and Socratic questioning techniques as they circulate the room, moving from group to group to evaluate student progress. As a facilitator, the teacher is never center-stage. In literature circles, the teacher’s role is supportive, organizational and managerial.

What is the role of each student?
There are a number of approaches you can take, but Daniels believes in introducing literature circles by using predefined roles that students take turns fulfilling. Although the terminology used to name the roles may vary, the descriptions remain similar.

Pam Chandler, a sixth-grade English, reading, and social studies teacher at Sequoia Middle School in Redding, California, defines the roles her students take on in literature circles this way:

  • Artful artist uses some form of artwork to represent a significant scene or idea from the reading.
  • Literary luminary points out interesting or important passages within the reading.
  • Discussion director writes questions that will lead to discussion by the group.
  • Capable connector finds connections between the reading material and something outside the text, such as a personal experience, a topic studied in another class, or a different work of literature.
  • Word wizard discusses words in the text that are unusual, interesting, or difficult to understand.

Teachers will want to begin by modeling the various roles within a small group in front of the whole class before sending students out on their own. However, you may be surprised to find out that once students are comfortable with the group-discussion format, you may be able to discontinue these roles altogether.

How do I evaluate students?
Literature circles are not intended to “cover material”— they are designed to empower students to take control of their learning experiences, to get them excited about literature, and to help them find creative ways to delve into books. Keeping that in mind, teachers who use literature circles do not use traditional methods of evaluation.

Because teachers are not at the center of attention, they are better able to engage in “authentic,” real-time assessment. This can include keeping narrative observational logs, performance assessments, checklists, student conferences, group interviews, one-on-one conferences, and the like.

Keep in mind that evaluation in literature circles is not just the job of the teacher. Just as we require students to take responsibility for their own book selections, topic choices, and reading assignments, we also want them involved in the record-keeping and evaluation activities of literature circles.

For a more comprehensive discussion of literature circles, check out both Bonnie Campbell Hill’s guide Literature Circles and Response, and Harvey Daniels’s book, Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups.

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Tags: critical thinking, critical thinking strategies, reading ability, reading teachers, student engagement, collaborative learning, Literature Circles

The Getting-Ready-to-Read Strategy: A 3-Step Guide for Reading Teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jul 1, 2014 1:07:00 PM


If you’re looking to equip your students with a set of reading strategies that will teach them to take charge of their reading experience and approach texts with a purpose in mind, you might find Dorothy Grant Hennings’s three-step reading strategy useful. While this strategy will be especially useful for secondary students who are preparing for college, Hennings’s Getting-Ready-to-Read Strategy can certainly be adapted for use with younger readers.

The Getting-Ready-to-Read Strategy: A 3-Step Guide for Reading Teachers

Step 1: Preview before reading
The first step in reading is to preview the selection you are going to read. Why? So that you can find your bearings and gain a general sense of what the selection is about before diving straight in.

There are a few questions you should keep in mind as you preview a selection:

  • What is the topic of this selection? In other words, what is this selection about?
  • How has the author organized his or her ideas on the topic?

To answer these two questions, read and think about:

  • The title. Titles often contain clues about the topic
  • The author. Generally speaking, authors stick to one area—fiction, history, biology, etc.—and if you know something about the author, you can find more clues about the topic
  • The headings. Is the text divided into sections by headings? If so, you may find more clues about subtopics and learn more about how the text has been organized
  • Terms that are repeated at the beginnings of paragraphs or words that are italicized or bolded. Words that are italicized, bolded, or repeated are important to the author. Pay attention to them!
  • The introductory and concluding paragraphs. These paragraphs will tell you more about what the selection is going to be about and what the author thinks about the topic.
  • The illustrations. Do you see any photos, graphs, maps, drawings? These may help you figure out the major focus of a selection
  • The margin notes or footnotes. These sections often contain definitions of key terms, which give you clues about what the selection is about

Step 2: Think about what you already know
Now that you’ve previewed the text and gathered clues, ask yourself, “What do I already know about this topic?” To answer this question, visualize, or picture, things that are discussed in the selection and connect them to things you already know something about. It may be helpful to jot down words or sketch out images that come to your mind about the topic.

Step 3: Setting your purpose for reading
Are you reading for pleasure? Are you reading for a particular course? Before diving into the selection, think about what you expect to learn from reading this piece. If you’re reading for pleasure, you probably already know what you hope to get from the text before reading. But if you’re working with an assigned reading, it’s likely that the instructor expects you to use these texts to learn more about a subject to prepare for a test.

Photo credit: RLHyde / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: critical reading, critical thinking strategies, reading comprehension strategy, reading ability

5 Non-negotiables for Reading Teachers

Posted by Ryan O'Rourke on May 13, 2014 2:49:10 PM

Reading TeachersFew of us doubt the importance of teaching reading. Parents want their children to read and teachers have resorted to practically begging their students to read. But how do we make it happen?

According to Donalyn Miller, author of Reading in the Wild, teachers must build and depend on a “framework that exists every day throughout the school year.” This framework, or what Miller refers to as “non-negotiables,” should be the foundation against which teachers check their lesson planning, assessment, resources, classroom management, and virtually every aspect of their instructional design.

We’ve pulled five of Miller’s classroom “negotiables,” and listed them below.

5 Non-negotiables for Reading Teachers

Time to read; time to write
Miller’s students spend a significant amount of time reading in class—approximately one-third of every class period, in fact. During this daily independent reading time, she confers with several students about their reading and meets with small groups of students who need additional instruction and support. In addition to this, she encourages students to read at home and removes or reduces homework and busy-work activities in order to provide time for additional reading.

Students need to feel that they are a part of a community of readers and writers
To help students develop confidence and self-efficacy as readers, Miller places emphasis on ensuring students nurture relationships with other readers in reading communities. These communities include both their peers and teacher. Whether students read below grade level, meet grade-level goals, or surpass grade-level expectations, all of them fully participate in activities and conversations that value individual strengths and viewpoints.

Miller argues that students need to make their own choices about reading material and writing topics. So in her classroom, students self-select all books for independent reading. She encourages them to read widely, and helps them select books from a variety of genres and formats including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels. She also supports and challenges students through reading advisory—that is, guiding them toward books that match their interests and reading abilities.

Students need the opportunity to respond to books in natural ways
Miller stresses the importance of providing students with daily opportunities to respond to what they read. Students share book recommendations, write response entries, and post book reviews based on their independent reading. In addition to this, they talk about books daily with their peers and us through conferences and classroom discussions.

The workshops are built on structure and predictable ritual
In Miller’s classroom, reading workshops follow a consistent routine of lessons—and time for sharing and reflection. Regular conferences, reading response, and reader’s notebook records hold students accountable for their reading and provide information about their progress toward personal and academic reading goals.

If you’re interested in learning more about Donalyn Miller’s approach to reading instruction, check out one of our recent blogs, “5 Simple Ways to Increase Independent Reading Time.”

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Tags: reading assessment, effective reading comprehension strategies, reading ability, reading teachers, read alouds

Three essential websites for reading teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Aug 17, 2013 6:00:00 AM

reading teachersA couple weeks ago, I came across a website called GoodReads and I can’t get enough of it. Essentially, GoodReads is a Facebook for book nerds. There are forums and communities to join, books to add to your digital book shelf and places where you can post your reviews and interact with likeminded readers.

I have a horrible habit of not remembering the books I want to read. The minute I enter a book shop, my memory breaks down and that mental scrap sheet of book recommendations disappears into the ether. GoodReads remedies this problem because I never have to write down any titles or authors; I simply click and add them to my list of “to-reads” and pull it up on my phone.

Oh, but there’s more: GoodReads also gives me the opportunity to interact with published authors and enter into contests to win books before they’re available in book stores.

If you haven’t guessed where this is all going, I’m suggesting that reading teachers share GoodReads with their students. It’s an easy way for students to keep track of their reading progress and gives them a forum for them to make their writing public.

reading teachersBiblionasium is a lot like GoodReads, but this site has been created specifically for teachers, parents and K-8 students. As with GoodReads, users can set up virtual bookshelves, browse friends’ bookshelves and easily find books with a customizable search bar that allows students to search by title, author or reading level. What makes Biblionasium an ideal choice for parents and teachers, though, is that it keeps them all connected. Here’s how it works:

Teachers create a free account, add students and parents to their roster, and assign passwords. Once students login, build their virtual bookshelves and start cataloging their reading practices, parents can check in to view a reading summary. This report lets parents know what students are reading, how long they’re reading, and whether or not they are challenging themselves.

reading teachersIn addition to GoodReads, an Edmodo buddy alerted me to a similar site called Reading Rewards. Much like GoodReads, users can add books to their digital library, write reviews and join groups, but this site specifically targets kids between the ages of five and fifteen.

Students can track their reading “miles,” earn badges when they hit milestones, and visit the RR Store to collect reading rewards: a movie night at home, for example, or a family game night, a sleepover with a friend, iTunes credit, or game console time. Adults determine how many RR miles are required to purchase rewards.

Teachers can also create accounts and set up their class as a group. Once students join, teachers receive access to a dashboard where they can track class book lists, reading tallies, book reviews, and more. Teachers can also set individual or class reading targets—and because Reading Rewards is fully web based, your students can access it from home themselves.

If neither of these two sites satisfy your needs, there’s also a site called Book Wink. You can learn more about this site by clicking here.


Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading comprehension, apps for educators, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling reader, apps for teachers, reading ability, reading fluency, reluctant readers, independent reading

5 Simple Ways to Increase Independent Reading Time

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Aug 13, 2013 4:46:00 PM

independent readingAccording to a 2011 survey, the Pew Research Center found that 72% of American adults had read a printed book in the last year. A year later they found that 21 percent of American adults had read an e-book in the past year. Using a “broader definition” of e-content, the study found that 43 percent of Americans age 16 and older said they had “either read an e-book in the past year…or other long-form content such as magazines, journals, and news articles in digital format on an e-book reader, tablet computer, regular computer, or cell phone.”

The statistics aren’t as bleak as we expected, but we’re still concerned about the number of Americans, including students, who aren’t reading. Writer and educator Donalyn Miller shares this concern, but in her book, The Book Whisperer, she suggests that by simply rethinking our daily practices, we can not only get our students reading, but actually increase their independent reading time. 

5 Simple Ways to Increase Independent Reading Time

Classroom Interruptions
How often are your classes interrupted by special deliveries of messages, forgotten lunches, notes that need to go home, or phone calls from the office? Some of these interruptions take ten seconds, others may take ten minutes. In one week, Miller recorded 14 interruptions and documented how much instructional time was lost at the end of the week: a grand total of 40 minutes. That’s 40 minutes students could have been reading!

One way to take advantage of these interruptions is by teaching your students to get out their books as soon as an interruption occurs. Teach your students that a knock on the door or a ring from the classroom telephone isn’t a signal for them to chat; it’s a signal for them to reach into their desks, grab their book and start reading. If you start this procedure right away, your students will quickly internalize it.

Bell Ringers and Warm-Ups
Many of us supplement our literacy instruction with warm-up activities that ask students to “look for grammatical and punctuation errors in a scripted sentence.” Yet research consistently suggests (see Alsum & Bush, 2003; Thomas & Tchudi, 1999 and Weaver, 1996) that little of this grammar instruction actually sticks or transfers to our students’ writing. Considering that, why are we still using it? In lieu of these kinds of activities, Miller suggests that our students spend warm-up time reading.

When Students Are Done
The rule above also applies to students who finish their work early. Instead of allowing them to sit quietly, draw, or grab a worksheet from a folder of extension activities, why not have students read instead? We don’t know about you, but when we were students, the last thing we wanted was to be “rewarded” with more work—so inevitably we began working slower, or pretending like we were still working to avoid extension activities. Reward with books, not worksheets.

Picture Day
For students, picture day is a national holiday. Not only do they get out of class, they get to stand in a long line and visit with their friends. Like Miller, you probably spend picture day “walking up and down the line, monitoring behavior and shushing students.” After years of this, Miller started requiring her students to bring a book to picture day. Not only does this help curb behavior issues, it’s a simple way to reclaim valuable reading time.

Library Time
Recently a colleague of ours marveled at the fact that we still took our students to the library. While he conceded that library fieldtrips were “good in theory,” they always turned into chaos. While it’s true that many students see library visits as a social event where they get time off, this misconception can be corrected if we model appropriate behavior and make our expectations clear on the first visit.

Here’s what Miller has to say about modeling:

My modeling starts with my giddiness as the first library day arrives. I begin mentioning to students that we are going to the library several days ahead of time and imagine with them the wonderful books we will find there. I post library days on our class Web site. I want students to pick up on the fact that I think library days are events to anticipate. On the big day, I always ask a student to remind me when it is a few minutes before our assigned library time, so that we can line up and get there promptly.

Before they head to the library, Miller goes over the rules:

  • Every student must have a book to return, renew, or read, or a plan to get one at the library
  • If students do not want to check out a book, they must bring their own book
  • Every student must walk out of the library with a book
  • Students who are not checking out books can head to quiet corners and read
  • When everyone has a book to read, we all sit and read until the library time ends or head back early and read in the classroom

    Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading comprehension, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling reader, reading ability, reading fluency, reluctant readers, independent reading

Use Travel Journals to Help Prevent Summer Slide

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Jun 4, 2013 1:30:00 PM

summer slideWe’ve been racking our brains for creative ways to keep our students sharp when we’re not there this summer. Here’s one of our ideas: have them keep travel journals. Even if your students don’t end up traveling, they can still use pictures, drawings, articles, receipts, and brief journal entries to document the things they did and saw when they weren’t in school.

To get them excited about the idea, we combed the Internet and found five tutorials to help them create their own travel journal. Although students can always purchase journals—Amazon has a large selection—we thought having them create their own would make a fun end-of-the-year project.

Use Travel Journals to Help Prevent Summer Slide

Kim Rankin’s blog Catching Foxes offers an excellent travel-journal tutorial:

summer slide 2
Here’s another we found on Mom Endeavors:

summer slide 3

 Another from Julie Kirk’s website, Notes on Paper:

summer slide 4

MyHandboundBooks sells a 9-page tutorial (for $10.00) that outlines the process for making leather journals like the one you see below. The document—a PDF that is immediately sent to your email—includes tips for selecting leather, detailed sewing instructions, and templates to cut out. Everything is fully illustrated with step-by-step instructions and written for people with no bookbinding experience.

summer slide 5

Over at Dancing Commas, you’ll find a free PDF template for the journal you see below. You can download the template by clicking here.

summer slide 6.jpg

If your students worry that they won’t know what to write about, provide them with a few of the prompts below:

"The weather today was"
"I made a friend"
"I learned a new word"
"I tried a new food"
"The best/worst parts"
"I’m homesick for"
"The funniest thing happened to me"
"Today I saw/smelled/heard/felt/tasted"
"Illustrate the difference: draw a picture of a building, vehicle, view, that differs from home"
"Make a collage of found brochures, newspapers, magazines at your destination"
"Draw pictures of each of your travel companions"


Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: writing strategies, reading instruction, writing fluency, writing skills, reading ability, reading fluency, summer slide, travel journals

10 Summer Reading Activities for Struggling Readers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on May 18, 2013 6:00:00 AM

struggling readersLately our blog topics have been targeting parents and there’s a reason for it: Summer is only a few weeks away. Like most teachers, we’re looking forward to the warm weather and a new schedule, but our students—particularly our struggling readers—are never far from our minds. Will the progress these students made over the last year stagnate in the next three months when we’re not there to coach and encourage them? Did we successfully develop their intrinsic motivation to read? Will parents pick up where we left off? Since you can’t be there over the summer, we’re passing along 10 summer reading activities for struggling readers.


10 Summer Reading Activities for Struggling Readers

  1. If you’re going on a trip this summer, read about your destination. While you’re on the trip, keep a record of the things you saw.
  1. Compile a checklist of things you want to do over the summer. Do you want to build something? See something? Go somewhere? Find books or documentary films related to your list.
  2. Sign up for a summer activity—this could be an art class, a sports team, a dance class, guitar lessons, whatever. Now find books and magazines related to it.
  3. Get a library card. Parents: Treat this as an honorable occasion and a rite of passage.
  4. Write a letter to your favorite author. Don’t be surprised when they write you back.
  5. Start a summer blog and keep your friends and teachers updated on what you are doing. There are dozens of blogging platforms to choose from and most of them are free. Here are a few free blogging platforms you might check out: Blogger,,, or even TypePad Micro.
  6. Write a digital story using a free website called Storybird. Struggling readers and writers are often intimidated by blank screens. Digital storytelling allows users to choose their images first; then they write, tailoring their story to fit the images.
  7. Watch foreign films and read our blog to find out why you should.
  8. Subscribe to an online blog that writes about topics that interest you. Get involved in the conversation by commenting on the posts.
  9. Make a deal with your parents: If they buy something on, you get to write a product review for it.

    If you’re looking for more ways to engage struggling readers, check out two of our recent blogs, 5 Reading Strategies you can share with your students' parents and Teaching Reading Means Teaching Students to LOVE Reading.

    Photo credit: KOMU news.
Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading comprehension, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling reader, reading ability, reading fluency, reluctant readers

10 things parents can say to struggling readers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on May 14, 2013 2:10:00 PM

struggling readersWhen we truly love something, it becomes a visceral experience: we laugh and smile, we feel energetic, optimistic, and time seems to go by quickly. And more often than not, we are compelled to return to the source, hoping to repeat these feelings again. While many of us have had visceral experiences reading books, a good number of our struggling readers haven’t even come close. One way to help students experience this is by creating what Esmé Raji Codell, author of How to Get Your Child to Love Reading, calls positive and collaborative reading experiences.

Below we’ve given you 10 prompts that you can use to initiate conversations and share your enthusiasm for books with struggling readers. While teachers will find these reading prompts useful, many of them have been created specifically with parents in mind.

10 things parents can say to struggling readers

  • “You can stay up as late as you want tonight, as long as you are reading.”
  • “I remember you telling me that you just finished reading Charlotte’s Web in class, so I rented the movie. I thought it would be fun to see how the movie and book were different from one another.” 
  • “Here’s a flashlight and some snacks. I’ve set up a reading fort for you in the closet so you’ll have a private spot to read.”
  • “I’ve been saving this present for a rainy day. Here’s a new book; it was my favorite when I was your age.”
  • “I know waiting in the doctor’s office is boring. I brought this for you; it’ll make the time fly by.”
  • “I get bored when I’m folding laundry. Would you keep me company by reading me something interesting?”
  • “Tell me about that book I saw you reading. The cover looked interesting.”
  •  “This is an interesting book cover. Why do you think that the illustrator chose these colors? Would you have illustrated the main character differently? Can you think of another scene that would have made a great book cover? What made you choose that scene?”
  • “I’m really glad you’re reading Big Frank’s Fire Truck. I noticed that the firefighters at the station down the street wash their truck every Thursday morning. Would you be interested in walking there sometime so that we could meet them?
  • “I saw you reading Meet George Washington last night. Did you know that one of his wife’s favorite desserts was Shrewsbury cake? I found a recipe in a book at the library and thought we could make it tonight after dinner.”

If you are looking for more ways to engage struggling readers, you might be interested in two of our recent blogs, 5 Reading Strategies you can share with your students' parents, and Reading Teachers: Book Wink has heard your students’ cries for help.


Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading comprehension, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling reader, reading ability, reading fluency, reluctant readers

Strategies for Struggling Readers: Conquering a book you don’t like

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Apr 20, 2013 6:00:00 AM

struggling readersWe’ve all had to struggle through books we didn’t like—maybe even books we deplored. When it comes to our students, we don’t worry too much about the strong readers. Sure, the text may not resonate with them; they may even use that forbidden “B-word” (boring, of course) to describe it.  Nonetheless, they’ll still muster up the strength to press on. Struggling readers are another story: They tend to become discouraged and often give up before they’ve truly even started a book.

We’re always looking for reading strategies for struggling readers, so we were happy to come across a video made by author Jim Trelease called How to Read a Book You Don’t Want to Read.

Trelease’s video was inspired by, of all things, watching tree surgeons cut down a leaning, 80-foot pine tree that threatened his house. The process used by the tree “surgeons,” in a strange way, reminded him of having to read books we don’t want to read. The end result was not only one less leaning pine tree, but also a nine-minute video that may help your reluctant readers. Check it out and let us know what you think.

Strategies for Struggling Readers: Conquering a book you don’t like

Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading comprehension, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling reader, reading ability, reading fluency

Spark It: A free reading assessment tool for parents and teachers

Posted by Marygrove MAT on Apr 9, 2013 9:16:00 AM

reading assessmentIt’s unfortunate, but every year we encounter struggling readers who have been lost in the shuffle or flown under the “reading radar” for years. So you can imagine how pleased we were to come across Spark it, a free reading assessment tool that not only evaluates readers’ skill level, but also offers recommendations for improvement and activities to develop their skills.

What impressed us about Spark It was its “user-friendliness.” As parents facilitate the four parts of the assessment, they’re guided by pop-up icons that tell them exactly what to do, when to do it and what they should say. Should parents experience any issues during the assessment, they can refer to the “tips” icon.

SparkIt assesses students’ proficiency in four areas:

  • Vocabulary (Picture Identification): Looking at pictures of objects and correctly naming the objects
  • Fluency (Rapid Naming): Quickly naming a string of familiar items—a series of numbers, letters or colors
  • Phonemic Awareness: Understanding how individual letter sounds combine to make a word and saying them
  • Letter and Word Calling: Pronouncing letters and words correctly, either by sight (just knowing it) or by sounding them out

 reading assessment2

Once the reading assessment is finished, you’ll receive instant results (see above picture) along with a personalized plan to help the reader improve his or her skills.


Guide to Reading Comprehension

Tags: reading assessment, reading comprehension, reading instruction, reading specialist, struggling reader, reading ability, reading fluency

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