Learning something new to teach comprehension-based readers
Beth Hanlon, OFLA Executive Recorder and Editor of The Cardinal
Spanish Teacher, Oberlin High School
Last year, my district’s Spanish department moved to teaching with comprehensible input. Our curriculum is primarily based on the use of comprehension-based readers. I am constantly searching for new ways to teach readers with my classes to keep things interesting and to ensure their understanding.
Somewhere in my searching I stumbled upon the concept of literature circles. I was intrigued but thought perhaps it was too much of a concept for me to wrap my head around as I am not an English teacher.
Before I go on, let’s pause and briefly describe a literature circle. It is a collaborative reading strategy for students to discuss in depth something they have read. It can be a short story, a chapter of a book, a few chapters of a book, etc. Each participant comes to the circle already having read the text and having completed the tasks of a role they have been assigned. In the circle, each student discusses the tasks they prepared for their role to engage the other participants in the circle more with the selected text.
However, I enjoy a challenge and I like figuring out new things for my classes. I researched literature circles, downloaded a few free resources I found on websites, and purchased something from Teachers Pay Teachers. I also emailed the English teachers at my school to pick their brains.
I know that when you find a resource, you cannot always use it as is for your classes. It is like trying to put a square into a circle hole – it just doesn’t fit. What worked in Señora So-And-So’s class that she posted on her website is not going to work 100% the same in my class. Therefore, I needed to evaluate all of the resources I read and downloaded to figure what would work best for my students.
The key to literature circles is assigning a role to each student. I needed to decide which roles would be most important to ensure student comprehension. I decided on the following five that are all done in Spanish:
- The Summarizer: This person writes a very detailed summary of the chapter. In the circle, they read their summary to the group and then other members make comments on the summary and can add additional information they feel is also important. The Summarizer also asks each group member what their favorite part of the text is.
- The Illustrator: This person draws out the important parts of the chapter. When meeting in their circle, others in the group narrate their drawings.
- The Questioner: This person writes open-ended questions while reading individually and writes answers to their questions. In the circle, they read the questions and the group members answer. They also present the responses they wrote. Questioners in my class are required to write three questions.
- The Vocabulary Wizard: This person writes down three new important words they learned from the chapter. They need to also write down the page number where the word appeared, as well as copy down the sentence it appears in. They then visit la Real Academia Española (www.rae.es) for the official definition. In the circle, they read the word and the sentence it appears in. Others in the group describe what they think the words mean. The Vocabulary Wizard then reads the official definition.
- The Connector: This person looks for at least two connections to their life in the text, in other things we have read, etc. They write down descriptions of the connections to present in the circle. Other members in the circle make comments on the connections and can contribute connections they made while reading.
Though I originally wanted to implement literature circles in my heritage learners class, I decided to test drive it in my Spanish 4 class. I have 9 bright and up-for-anything Spanish 4 students this year. When I asked them if they wanted to try something new with the next chapter of La Llorona de Mazatlán, they were all in. First, I had them silently read the chapter on their own. After, I explained the literature circles to them. They then divided into groups to decide who wanted to do which role. They let me know and I gave them a guided worksheet depending on what roles they selected. They then worked on reviewing the chapter to complete the task of their role on their own. (Though they are “in a group”, their initial work is not dependent on their group.) This initial introduction of literature circles, silent reading, dividing into groups, and working on their role’s tasks took about one 45 minute class period.
The next day, they asked for about 10 minutes to revisit their work and to finish up. When everyone was ready, they met in their groups. Of the group members, it didn’t matter who went first (Summarizer, Connector, etc.). As they worked, I wandered between the two groups (remember there are only 9 students, so two groups) and would sit and listen to them. Since one group was a member short, and thus one role short, I borrowed the worksheet from the larger group when they finished for the smaller group to use. When both groups were done, we completed a Write & Discuss about the chapter. Their ability to answer my prompting questions for the Write & Discuss showed me that they understood the chapter’s content from the literature circle process.
There are so many benefits to the literature circles! It is definitely a student led activity that places responsibility on each student to do their job for the benefit of the group. It helps them to deepen their understanding while they do their individual task and while they participate in the circle. It also appeals to their individual learning styles. For example, my super talented artist student can demonstrate his understanding by being The Illustrator. On the plus side for me as a teacher, this activity is low prep and once students understand the process, they could definitely do this on their own with a substitute teacher.
Since this first go around with literature circles, this class has participated in a few more. When I ask if they want to do a literature circle for a chapter, they always say “¡Sí!” I look forward to implementing this strategy with my heritage learners class and possibly my Spanish 3 class. I encourage you to try something this year!