There is nothing better for and ELA teacher’s heart than to hear her students actively engaged in discussions about books. Several years ago, when I was mentoring a 5th grade teacher, I was envious that she got to use Literature Circles in class. Her students were highly engaged in academic debate about the books they were reading. Their reading notebooks were full of notes, questions and drawings about their books and the students were anxious to show me what they’d been learning.
I left that class wondering how I could replicate the high-quality discussions in my 8th grade class. Up until this point, I’d only heard about literature circles used in elementary classes. I did some research and on-campus investigation and came up with a rough outline, then implemented my first literature circles with my 8th grade reading class. It didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped, but was determined to get my students talking about their books.
I’d done a pretty good job at getting my students to write about their book and demonstrate a higher level of thinking about their books, but I hadn’t been able to get them to discuss books beyond the basic plot when put into groups. At best, students would sit at a table group and read their assignment to each other, but the discussion was….well, not that good.
Then I attended a workshop by Penny Kittle who taught high school and yet her students were engaging in academic conversations about books. She introduced me to a whole new world of student led book talks. I was so excited about book talks when I left the training and wanted to implement them right away. I combined what I had already done with middle school literature circles plus what I’d learned from Penny Kittle’s training and went about the business of planning my first round of book talks.
To put it simply, a book talk is when a student shares about a book they chose with peers in a small group setting that sparks a deeper discussion about a topic from the book.
Here’s a few steps to help you plan for a round of student led book talks:
Step 1 – Library day
Your librarian (if you are lucky enough to have one in your school) will love you if you plan a library day for your class. Allow students time to browse and choose any book they wanted to read. Student choice is so important to maintaining high student engagement.
Step 2 – Class Time to read
Even if you ask students to read at home, I highly encourage you to plan some time in class for reading. Students gain so much from reading in a class and seeing others read. This is a great time for you to check in with students about their reading.
Step 3 – Student preparation for book talk. (I usually break this up over several days)
- Student notes – the first time I did this, students completed the activity in their reading notebooks, but over time, I found it was better to have a form for them to complete. Answers were more complete and students appeared to be more organized.
- Reading passage – students pick out a passage from the book to share with the group
- Questions – students prepare higher level questions ahead of time so they are not trying to think of something to ask during the discussion
Step 4 – Discussion Day!
The most important thing about this day is to give it time. Students might be hesitant to talk at first, but give them time together and I promise, if you’ve set it up right, they will begin to engage in academic conversations.
If your first round of book talks doesn’t go well, don’t give up. Just like any new strategy, it takes time. This strategy is new for you and your students. I would encourage you to try at least two rounds of book talks with the same class before giving up – I’m sure you’ll be surprised how quickly students begin to engage in real discussions about books!